Keith's Panamanian Travel Ramble

The wanderings of Andrea and Keith around Panama

The House on the Canal

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Now I’m not a designer, but if I was I think I would think this was a very special house! Close your eyes and picture a place on the banks of a narrow part of the Panama Canal. The views from the back yard are completely open to the Canal. The property is elevated from the Canal by around 30 feet and below, at Canal level, the Panama Canal Railway runs. The ships passing through the Canal are close enough that you can almost reach out and touch them. Binoculars not required!

 

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

I could sit there, on the shaded swing, for hours watching the comings and goings on the Canal here in this small town called Gamboa. This is roughly half way through the Canal and is the headquarters of the dredging division for the Canal.

The spacious back yard is very private. There is a large deck off the rear of the house and a pool for a refreshing dip. Part of the property backs onto the jungle. There is a large outdoor cage containing a very colorful and noisy McCaw.

As I walked through the backyard, I met a full size female deer, that didn’t seem to be the least bit bothered by my presence. The people who live there told me that the deer comes to their yard and hangs around while they are home. If they don’t want the deer around, they simply lead it to the gate between their property and the jungle and close it after the deer is out. The deer respects the closed gate and stays out of the yard. Imagine!!!

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

This house is owned by the Canal Company and was corporate housing during the US presence here. The present occupants of this house have been here for many years and over time have acquired many very special pieces of art and furniture from local indigenous artisans and locations where they have travelled. The living room features a couch, chair and table made from large pieces of bamboo. These were brought back from Columbia some time ago. There are two beautiful custom carved wood beds from local woods that were hand carved by local indigenous artists. The detail is amazing. Along with the beds, there is a table with frogs elaborately carved along the front edge of the tabletop. In the living room is another hand carved chair with monkeys carved into the arms. Everything here is eye candy and absolutely unique. What do you think?

An Evening at the Theatre

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Some of our friends here are long-time residents of Panama and lovers of live theatre. Yes… live theatre, in English, here in Panama. There is a place here called Theatre Guild of Ancon, which has been around for some 66 years. According to their Website:

“The Theatre Guild of Ancon was founded in 1950 by a group of Panamanian and American citizens who were interested in developing English language theatre in Panama. Our productions run the gamut of the theatrical spectrum – from modern, controversial dramas, to comedies and family entertainment, to musicals. Our stage has been the first step for performers such as Robert Loggia and Ruben Blades, and for successful directors such as Bruce Quinn. The Theatre Guild of Ancon is now the longest running theatre in Panama with the closing of the National Theatre of Panama in late 2015”.

A group of us decided to go for dinner and then the show, which was “Bang Bang You’re Dead”. This performance was by high school students in English.

Entrance is always by a $15.00 donation, with all the proceeds going directly to the theatre. The small old theatre building, housing the Guild, has had several earlier uses, only becoming the theatre in 1950.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

The performance was very low-budget and black, being about the difficulties of teenagers trying to cope with abuse, bullying, suicide, and murder. On the positive side, the five teen performers needed to memorize a large volume of lines, which they delivered without a hitch.

While this performance was not to my liking, we will keep an eye on this place as a potential site for future entertainment.  They allow cameras to shoot the performance!

Getting Legal in Roatan – Part 2

Stop!  If you have not read part 1, go here first!  https://jkeithhowie.com/2017/02/05/getting-legal-in-roatan-part-1/

After a couple of days in Roatan, I can use just one word to sum up our impression of this place and that word is WOW! It is very much to our liking and style. It is very casual, safe, US money works everywhere, people are friendly and not to plentiful, lots of restaurants, English is widely spoken and even the busses are easy to use.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

This place has no high-rises lining the beaches, in fact most of the buildings are around three floors tall so it hides in the jungle and adds to the beauty of the place.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

 

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

We were in Coxen Hole for a poke-around and were walking down a narrow sidewalk on a busy street. As is the way in much of Latin America, there was a telephone pole located right in the center of the sidewalk. A woman with a small baby was approaching from the other direction and we met right at the telephone pole. We stepped back to allow her through and as she passed us, she flashed us a big smile and in perfect English said “thank-you”. Now that may not seem like much but it typifies our experience with the locals approach to tourists here. It is most pleasant to be in such a place.

This place is a major dive center. There are many boats dedicated to the support of divers and tourists that want to see the reef and its inhabitants. This is where the reef that begins around Cozumel, Mexico and runs down the coast past Belize, ends. We have snorkeled the reef in Belize but here, the reef is only a few yards from the shore so access is easy and the beaches on this side of the island are nicely protected by it.

Most everything is right on the coast here so travel between towns is often more convenient by water taxi. We wanted to see a town called West Bay, don’t confuse it with the name of our town, West End. West Bay is on the western tip of the island, about 12 kilometers from us. A bus which is a small van that can carry around 10 people costs about US$1.25 and would take about 20 minutes. A water taxi makes the trip in 10 minutes for US$3.00. Don’t take it if you don’t want to get your feet wet when you land on the beach at West Bay!  There is no dock.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Our interest in West Bay was quickly replaced by relief that we were not staying there! It reminded me of the beach at Cancun, Mexico during a very busy spring break. It was wall to wall people jamming the beautiful beach and the resorts are crammed right next door to each other. The overall appearance of the place is tremendously improved by the low-rise construction. Most resort properties have a narrow beach front but are deep, with the buildings set at 90 degrees to the beach. Not too good for beach views! While the beach was beautiful, the volume of people and vendors was excessive and prices are a bit higher. We also discovered that vendors there are more aggressive than where we were staying. We walked the length of the beach and headed inland for a coffee.

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Our little hotel, Mr. Tucan is small, as many hotels are. It is just 10 rooms now but they are building on to it. There is an open patio between the two rows of rooms that is perfect for socializing with your neighbour and viewing the bay, through the palm trees. Many of the guests there were Canadian so it was interesting to compare notes with others about what they experienced, did, and thought of the place.  The rooms are small but adequate.  The beds are high enough to almost need a step-ladder to enter them.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

We were sad to leave such a beautiful place but eventually, you have to go home, or in our case back to Panama. Our flight was at 13:45 so we headed to the airport in lots of time, remembering our friends problem with Air Panama at Bocus del Torro. Again, we  received a pleasant English-speaking agent and headed  through security to the departure lounge. The lounge was busy with several flights waiting to leave, including a 737.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Our Air Panama Fokker arrived early and deplaned only 25 passengers. Quickly the plane was groomed and we 16 people were boarded. We departed half an hour early. It only took about 30 minutes to turn the aircraft around. Impressive!

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Once back to Panama, our flight path took us down the canal from Colon to Panama City. The weather was a bit cloudy but there were some opportunities for photos from the air.

Our visit to Roatan, Honduras left us appreciating a new destination we had never traveled to. We really enjoyed this visit and the food. We set out to eat seafood and did so almost exclusively. In the future when we need a trip to reset our visa date in Panama, Roatan will be high on our list.  Finally, legal in Panama!

Getting Legal in Roatan – Part 1

Here in Panama, we have developed a small legal problem. You can only drive here for 90 days without obtaining a Panamanian driver’s licence, which you cannot get unless you have some type of residency status. Andrea does the driving here and as such runs out of time she can use her Canadian driver’s licence on 12 February 2017. As a Canadian, she can stay in Panama for six months from the date of entry, without a visa by just showing her passport. That is the same for Australia, US, and Great Britain passport holders. For the rest of the world, we are told that most countries must get a visa before entrance that will be for a maximum of 90 days.

So what are we Australian, US, British and Canadians to do if you need to drive and you are here longer than 90 days? The common solution is to do a border crossing out of the country for three days and when you return, you receive a new updated date stamp in your passport that effectively restarts the 90 days for your ability to drive.

OK, where should we go? After a little looking around and a subscription to http://OfertaSimple.com, a local discount provider, we decided on a four-day trip to Roatan, Honduras with airfare at half price. Oh good… a vacation from the vacation!

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The flights were by Air Panama on Fokker 100, 100 seat jets. This was an aircraft that I was not familiar with. A little checking determined that Fokker made 283 of these rear engine jets from 1986 to 1997. And Air Panama bought their first two in 2009. They now run nine Fokker 100s and are looking for more. Air Panama’s base is the Marcos A Gelabert International Airport in Albrook (PAC).  It is on the site of the former US Albrook Airforce Station.

We were efficiently processed by pleasant English-speaking staff and waited in the departure lounge to board the aircraft. Now we have friends who had recently experienced an Air Panama horror story while travelling to Bocas del Torro. They went on at length describing the flight delays and lack of information provided, enough to make us somewhat wary of Air Panama. Our experience was the opposite. As we and the other ten passengers were quickly loaded onto the 100 seat aircraft, we found a clean comfortable aircraft equipped with comfortable leather seats that still smelled new! Our seats were in row five which was pleasantly quiet due to the rear engines. The cabin service throughout the one hour and fifty minute flight was good.

The airport at Roatan, in the former British Honduras, is located in a scenic town called Coxen Hole. Roatan is part of a group of islands called the Bay Islands. This is also the site of the cruise ship docks where three to four ships arrive almost each day of the week.

We arrived at the airport minutes after a United 737 had dumped a full load of passengers from Houston which put us at the end of a long line to get through customs. Eventually we got through and boarded our transportation to our hotel, called Mr. Tucan in a small town called West End about twenty minutes from the airport on the opposite side of the island.  The West End is the feature photo at the top of this post.

The first impression of our island reminded me of a lush green Caribbean scene where the roadway never ventures far from the beach. We arrived at Mr. Tucan and were shown to our room. The small hotel is new, only opening last October and is right across the street from the beach.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Next on the agenda was lunch. Not knowing much about the area we wandered looking for an appealing place which we quickly found. The Lighthouse Restaurant is built out over the water and, of course, specializes in seafood. What a perfect location for a relaxing meal in the cool breeze from the Pacific Ocean.

Our New Furniture from Capira

Our new custom furniture finally arrived a couple of weeks ago and I thought you might be interested in what we got. Furniture choice here is difficult due to the humidity and bugs.

We have a number of cabinets made from plastic by a company called Rimax. It comes from Colombia. Plastic you say… why you say! Well, mould, mildew, humidity and smell is why. Plastic does not mould and is easy to keep clean. Much of the furniture you see offered in the stores is built from press board, which swells and takes on a strong not very pleasant odor. There is also lots of imported soft wood furniture that looks great but will also swell in the humidity and the bugs love it. You have to watch for little wood powder piles in the vicinity that will tell you that you have some unwanted guests trying to move into your wooden furniture. The plastic may not look all that fancy but it is highly functional, which is the point. So what is the solution?

There are a couple of hardwoods here that bugs won’t touch. Teak, called teca, and Sour Cedar. You can find furniture in the stores made from these but the styles were not to our liking with poor quality of construction and finishing. We asked around and found a custom furniture shop that was recommended. It is in Capira, a town inland (west) about a two-hour drive. We visited the factory and ordered the furniture and I wrote a blog about it. (https://jkeithhowie.com/2016/10/31/in-search-of-furniture/)

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Our furniture was delivered a couple of weeks ago. It was nicely built and well finished. Designs were ours, except for the bed which was a copy of one in his factory. Everything was built with teca and from photos of items we liked the look of but that would not have worked here. It was also cheaper (I like cheap as I am Scottish) to buy custom build teca furniture than store bought press board or softwood items that would not survive our conditions.

What do you think?

Three Kings Day at Altos de Pacora

Three Kings Day is a religious holiday I had not heard of before this year. It is widely celebrated throughout Latin America and in various European counties. Three Kings Day is the 12th day of Christmas, occurring on the 6th of January. It celebrates the Three Kings that came to Bethlehem to visit the baby Jesus.

The local custom here in Panama is for the children to put their shoes outside the front door of their house before they go to bed. It is also common for them to leave straw for the King’s camels. In the morning, the shoes contain small gifts. A trail of straw is left to mark the trail to the larger gifts as camels are notoriously sloppy eaters. Sound a bit familiar? Customs vary throughout the world. If you were in Greece, for example, the Priest would go out into the Mediterranean on a boat and throw a wooden cross overboard. As the cross is thrown, the men of the village dive into the water and swim toward the cross. He who gets to it first gets good luck for the New Year.

The Christmas season here in our little community of Los Altos de Cerro Azul, means used clothing and cash is collected from the residents and doners. The cash is converted to food which is then packaged into hampers. The target of the aid is a small remote poor community further up the mountain road called Altos de Pacora. This operation involves many but is spearheaded by our local Vecinos Vigilantes (Neighbourhood Watch) organization. The National Police, arrange for the delivery and distribution of the aid to needy residents of Altos de Pacora with the help of the teachers at the local school.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Altos de Pacora is a community of around 250 people. There is an all grade school, a couple of general stores and the odd church and that is all! The community is about 12 kilometers or a one hour drive further up the mountain on a joint river bed and road, depending on the weather and season. Four wheel drive is a pretty good idea although three government vehicles that made the trip with us were two-wheel drive. In the wet season, even a four-wheel drive would be taxed to make this trip. The roads are steep, narrow, and rutted deeply in many places. There are no services that you do not bring yourself.

Pacora is poor due to the remoteness of its location. There are very few jobs in the area so many of the men leave the community to work elsewhere, returning when possible. An intermittent bus serves the area once daily, but not reliably due to weather and the road conditions.

Police service, provided from Cerro Azul, is restricted much of the year due to the inability to negotiate the road. The community is pretty much on its own for a large part of the year.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

 

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

This year, on Three Kings Day, or the 12th day of Christmas, an event was very capably planned in Pacora by the local school teachers. They prepared a list of people most in need of food to make sure the food hampers are delivered to the right people. The used clothing is picked over by the local women and adopted by the new owners. This year the local government representative purchased new toys, soccer balls, bicycles, and TVs, which were also distributed to the community. The head of the National Police for the district, attended, bringing a meal of rice and two large cakes for the people.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Our little five vehicle convoy from the Cerro Azul police station headed up the mountain with all the food and gifts aboard.

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2016-JKH-Panama Trip

I found it particularly interesting to photograph. I usually shoot events full of happy people, with lots of smiles. Today, some of the photos are like that but there are some that show a sadness that comes from the helplessness these people experience. Hopefully, the food, clothing and gifts delivered on this 12th day of Christmas will help reduce this sadness just a bit.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Christmas Day in the Jungle

Today is Christmas Day here in Panama, as it is throughout the rest of the world. We have followed the build up to this special day, here in the tropics and find that the commercializing of Christmas is present here in a big way. Halloween is not even over when sounds of Christmas carols begins to become noticeable in malls and on the local radio stations.

Last night we were in town and noticed that many of the stores were open long past when they would have closed at home. The large grocery stores and gas stations were most noticeable. One special gift from the government here is that on Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day, tolls are suspended on all the toll roads. Traffic was heavy as people rushed about to complete their last-minute tasks, or just took a drive with the family.

Fireworks are here at Christmas and there were lots of examples to be seen as we drove home over one of the free toll roads. Locals who can usually be found trying to sell goods to the people in cars stuck in traffic had a new product… fire crackers.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

People tend to gather with family to enjoy a time of fellowship and food at Christmas and here is no exception. We had a pot luck Christmas Brunch with 33 people turning out to enjoy visiting with friends and neighbours and meeting new people. It was interesting to look around the group and discover how truly international our little community is. There were people from Canada and the US as well as Belgium, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, France, South Africa and India.

The tropical weather makes such an outdoor gathering more pleasant. We were at 25C here and I noticed Calgary was at -16C. Anyways, thanks to everyone who follows this little blog and it is my sincere wish that you each have a very Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.

Orchids at Christmas

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

We live in a housing development surrounded by old growth forest in the Chagress National Park in Panama. It is amazing to see how nature expresses itself here. Our lot has a number of trees, called National Trees, locally. Unfortunately one large National Tree has succumbed to our house building and over the past couple of years has died. We decided to have it removed, in spite of its heavy use by the birds who hop back and forth between its safety and the bananas we serve them on our deck.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

The tree for removal has a trunk diameter of around 20 inches and is a hardwood of some kind. In spite of it being dead, healthy green growth covers it and is identified to us as orchids, by a couple of local experts. “Make sure the orchids survive!” we were directed.  Now I wonder how you do that.

Our tree is loaded with orchids!  Some in bloom, others soon to bloom.

Panama has more natural diversity than most countries on the planet. The nation’s plant life includes 1,500 different tree species, 675 types of fern and more than 1,200 unique kinds of orchids. A single large tree in the mid-elevations may be home to 20 species of orchid. I found out that most orchids originate from a tropical climate, meaning good air, plenty of light, and 12-hour days (365 days a year). The temperature (depending on the species of orchid) should range between 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 to 23.8 degrees Celsius) and humidity of 70 to 90%. Now I understand why there are so many. All of the conditions are perfectly matched.

Did you know that Orchids are grouped into two types? Terrestrial orchids, grow in soil but most tropical orchids are Epiphytes, which means that they grow in the air, and not in soil. Their fleshy roots are covered with a layer of white cells called velamen, which acts as a sponge to absorb water. The coating also protects the roots from heat and moisture loss. Orchid roots need air and good drainage, making them well-suited for tree living.

The relationship between the tree and the Orchid is called Commensalism, today’s word for the day! Commensalism means that one organism in a relationship benefits, and the other is unaffected. Epiphytic orchids grow on trees, but just use them just for support. They do not obtain energy or nutrients from the trees. Water and nutrients are obtained from the air, and from compost on the trees. It is not be a good word to use to describe a successful marriage!

It was also recommended that the orchids be mounted on the south side of the tree but in our case, they were all growing on the north side, in a thin layer of moss. I remembered that moss grows on the north side of trees. Hmm.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

The tree was carefully brought down in the exact location planned, with the help of two skilled workers, several pieces of rope, a pickup truck, and a chain saw. We were nervous because if it went the wrong way, we would take out the power lines. Once down, the orchids  are salvaged by chopping the trunk up into short manageable pieces that contained the orchids.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

 

We can just leave the orchids on the pieces of trunk, or we could move them to another tree. Now we have to figure out how to best stage this bountiful example of natures beauty.

 

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

A Birthday Party at Nelva’s English School

Once upon a time, here in Los Altos de Cerro Azul, lived a woman in a small house surrounded by dense jungle. This woman had a strong desire to help local, not so well off, children learn English. The public school system teaches only Basic English.  If you want more you have to pay to go to a private school.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

On the way down the mountain, about half way, is one of the few level wide spots in the road and it houses a small general store called Nino’s. It has been there for years and is a popular stop for everyone going up and down the mountain. They sell the basic necessities along with propane, for cooking and hot water. They also have a small restaurant that is open for lunch.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Many of the locals in that area use the infrequent busses, most of which are vans, to travel. They all stop at Nino’s so it is a convenient place to pick up whatever they are needing on the way home or a little something for lunch on the way to work.

Anyways, our woman who wanted to help children, discussed her wish with the owner of Nino’s, who could see the value in education and offered a small room (about 3 Meters by 5 Meters) for a classroom, without charge.

After school each week, on Saturday at three in the afternoon, a small group of kids ranging from age six to 16, arrived on time for a free lesson in conversational English. All the training aides were made by “the teacher”, as she was respectfully called by her students.

We are coming to the end of the public school year, and two of “the teacher’s” students were having birthdays. The concept of a combined graduation birthday party evolved into reality and the invite went out to the students and their friends. The kids came up with their ideas for decorations and busily prepared and installed them, with a little help. Colorful balloons, lights, banners, cake, cupcakes and other food, as well as a piñata all turned up to transform the dingy little room into a party atmosphere. The theme was Mickey and Mini Mouse. Happily, I got to take this party in with my camera!

Here is the graduation class, smaller than it started out due to students having to go to work.  Maybe the class next year will be larger.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

I have said this before about Panamanian kids. In a group at a function with adults they are all well-behaved and respectful to adults. I cannot imagine such behavior in North America. The culture is different and this is one of the differences I like.

The party started with a couple of simple games like pin the tail on the burro and a potato race. A couple of the older kids ran or assisted with the events. Food was next. Everyone sat and waited patiently as a plate of rice was delivered to them. Cake and cupcakes were all candled and lit. After everyone got their pictures of the cake and cupcakes, they returned to their seats for the delivery. Last activity was the breaking of the piñata. Piñatas are often associated with Mexico but they are also common throughout Central America, particularly if it involves kids. Surprisingly the piñata only cost around five dollars at the local Chinese store. Everyone lines up and each kid gets a chance to take three whacks until the piñata breaks. The bigger kids also get a blindfold. Once the piñata breaks there is an immediate dive and mad scramble to recover all the candy that is on the floor. Quite the process.

Here are some of the photos I took. The low light and small room make for difficult shots. I had to use my wide-angle lens to cover the room. Some distortion shows on some of the shots. The low light forced a flash, which was not a problem, but the low light through the viewfinder caused most shots to be fired blind, causing greater post processing time, particularly in cropping. I will also post some shots on my Facebook account. (J Keith Howie). Enjoy.

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2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

 

 

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

A Hurricane in Panama?

Here in Los Altos de Cerro Azul, our weather is spectacular and largely unpredictable. You never know what it will be or for how long. Sunny, cloudy, windy, rainy and everything in between (except snow) is routinely experienced. We are at 750 meters elevation in the Chagress National Park which forms a large part of the Panama Canal watershed.

Without a heavy rainy season, the Canal is in jeopardy. As late as last season weight restrictions were imposed on ships as a result of low water levels in the Canal towards the end of the dry season.

Normal weather here during the rainy season involves short intense rainfall followed by sun but recently we had about 6 days of solid high volume rain along with some medium intensity winds. Trees were down in several places which often cause power outages. We were without power for 54 hours with the only concern being for food in the refrigerator and freezer. With the help of some bags of ice and a couple of camping coolers, we were able to weather the storm. We live in a house with a steel roof. During the heavy rains, the noise was so great that you could not talk or even yell… sometimes a benefit!

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

 

2016-JKH-Panama Trip2016-JKH-Panama Trip

Once we got our power back, a little investigation showed that very unusual weather had occurred. Hurricane Otto, did not actually touch Panama but headed across the Caribbean for Costa Rica where it killed at least nine people and to Nicaragua that reported no deaths. Panama, although not directly hit by Otto, was subject to intense rainfall, which caused three deaths due to mudslides and trees falling in the Colon area. The dams on Lake Gatun released water to protect the Canal from flooding. This is positive because it means that the lake was full and would sustain a full season of Canal operations. Here is a video of the water release from one of the dams. The amount of water is amazing but then the scale of this operation needs to be considered. 52 million gallons (26 million at each end) of fresh water is released from Lake Gatun into the oceans for each transit.  Let’s see.  The average number of ships transiting the Canal per day is 40 and the dry season lasts from December through April.  You figure it out. I’m retired!

A Google visit tells me that the only known Hurricane to actually hit Panama was Hurricane Martha in 1969. Panama is south of the normal hurricane/tropical storm trail.

Here are a few photos of the weather. It was good to see the sun again.

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

2016-JKH-Panama Trip

 

 

 

 

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