Disaster strikes-but we are over it

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Hitchhikers Backpackers Lima Hostel
Read my review - 5/5 stars

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012


11th July

S12⁰ 07.351ī  W77⁰


Well, I guess there was a statistical chance on this trip through south and other bits of the
Americas that we would be unfortunate and hit a big problem. And so we did!

The warning signs were there when we came to the Peruvian border shortly after we left Copacobana on the Bolivian part of Lake Titicaca. The Peruvian border guys were to a man crooked, looking to throw some imagined misdemeanor at us which to put right would have involved a bribe. We had been warned about this trait on the part of Peruvian officials, especially at borders, so were having nothing to do with this corrupt behaviour. We just looked dumb, shook our heads and stood our ground as each one tried a new angle for a hand out. What we didnīt realize at the time was that this was a harbinger of bigger, much bigger problems to come not far down the road along the western shore of Lake Titicaca.

We arrived in the town of Puno where we thought we could maybe camp but beforehand we needed some cash so drove into the town centre to find an ATM. It became very obvious that we couldnīt get the car that close to where the banks and ATMs were located as there was a very big protest march made up of thousands of chanting teachers demonstrating for pay increases in progress when we arrived in Puno. So we parked on the street as close as we could get to the central part of town. It was broad daylight, there were plenty of decent looking people on the street but no sign of any police as they were all seemingly engaged in shadowing the marching teachers as they made their way through the town centre not far from where we parked Jambo.

We locked the car and as usual checked that there was nothing tempting in sight inside to steal. We knew the ATMs were but a few minutes walk up the street so locked the car on
the central locking with the key, intentionally not activating the alarm as it has a tendency to go off for no reason. We were just 10 minutes away from the car in all whilst we drew money from an ATM but when we got back and unlocked it Diana immediately said in a scared voice, “Bryan, the cameras”! Immediately I looked behind the front seats between the fridge and the cool box and saw that both our still and video cameras were missing, and then to my horror I realized that our laptop computer, a pair of really nice Pentax binoculars that used to belong to my Mum and my First Ascent rain jacket were also missing. At that moment we both just put our hands to our mouths and almost wept with a mixture of despair, fury and a huge sense of loss. We later came to realize that possessions such as laptops and cameras can of course be replaced even if doing so causes much disruption and of course involves unneeded and unplanned costs. But the biggest tragedy of all was that the laptop had almost all of the still photos we had taken on the trip on its hard drive, and apart from the few
we had used on our blog to date and about half of the ones taken in Argentina which had already been burnt onto a DVD the rest were now lost for good. It was a nasty twist of fate that I was about to burn the remaining pictures to disc at about the time we were robbed. In addition to the photos on the laptop and still on both cameras all of our GPS mapping for the countries we still had to travel through, waypoints gleaned earlier from dozens of sources such as other overlanders, and stacks of other vital info such as contacts and telephone
numbers, addresses etc were on the computer. As if that was not enough to really knock us down even further our “Black Book” in which we also kept a mass of useful and important info and which is usually kept in the laptopīs carry bag had of course also been stolen.

To say that suddenly our world had imploded did not really fully describe how we felt at that
moment. To cut a long and sad story down to the bare essentials we got the local police involved, and being more than slightly convinced that some men working inside the building next to where we parked if not guilty of the theft themselves that at least they must have seen what happened, tried to get the police on scene to investigate without any success. We ended up having to walk to the Tourist Police office in the townīs main square where we were told that before a case could be opened (and we could obtain the vital police case number we would need for an insurance claim), we would HAVE TO GO TO THE NATIONAL BANK OF PERU AND DEPOSIT THREE, YES JUST THREE, SOLES (about nine Rands!) into the Police bank account and then bring the deposit slip back to the Tourist Police offices! So along with a tour guide, one of whose clients had also been robbed of a camera that day, we stood in a queue in the bank for about 40 minutes to lodge this huge amount of money. After that it was another hour and more whilst the police flaffed around in a most disorganized manner producing endless bits of paper before we could leave with what we needed – a reference number. At no time did the police think to fingerprint the car or interrogate the builders near the car. A complete and utter disaster in all respcts.

How did they get the stuff out of the car with no sign of forcible entry? We are now sure that the rear side door nearest the pavement did not lock when activated by the central locking. On checking immediately afterwards we found that the circuit in that door that links to the locking solenoid was faulty and that the door was not locking as it should. But at the time we were totally unaware of this. However it must be said that some time previously back in South Africa we had experienced a similar problem which was due to typically shoddy Land Rover assembly or design standards where the wiring loom to that door had pulled apart preventing the door locking solenoid from doing its job. It had been fixed by our service agents then and there but it seems the repair was short lived. All we know is we lost most of our treasured trip photos, lots of vital data, an expensive laptop with all its accessories, our all important “Black Book”, and a high quality rain jacket. A black day indeed and the main reason for the delay in updating this blog. We were so despondent that evening in Puno that we took ourselves to the Sonesta Posada Hotel next to Lake Titicaca just outside the town and paid a hefty sum in USD to stay the night in a warm bedroom and to have someone else do the cooking for supper and breakfast. They kindly gave us a a reduced price for a nice bedroom looking out onto Lake Titicaca and two of the ancient ships brought in pieces in the 1860s to operate on the lake. The following morning we tried an idea that had occurred to me the previous evening. Contact the local newspapers and try and get them to publish an article on who we are and what had happened to us at the hands of the city’s criminals with an offer of a reward to the thieves to return at least the laptop and our book should they see the article. The hotel spent a long time tracking down a phone number for the local media and when finally they got through there was a negative response saying the paper would not come to us for the article, we would have to go to them. There was no way we were going back into Puno so we ditched the idea and that morning drove out of this city that held such a sad memory for us with no wish to return. Peru, you need to clean up these places. As for the local police and the need to deposit money into their account to open a case....As a postscript, we were emailed by the Puno police a week or so later to tell us the case was closed! I'm not even sure it was ever actually opened.

We headed north initially following the western shore of Lake Titicaca. Still smarting from the
theft we really didn’t take in a lot of our surroundings which was a pity as Titicaca is pretty amazing with its azure blue water and its sheer size. After the equally uninviting and scruffy sprawl that is the town of Juliaca we eventually found our way to Cusco. We had debated long and hard about the rigours of remaining at relatively high altitude with its accompanying chilly temperatures and of course the stress it still put on our respiratory systems which we would have to put up with if we wanted to include the big drawcard of Machu Pichu in our itinerary. It was indeed tempting to make a duck for the coast as soon as possible for some warmer weather and thicker air! But to have come this far and not visit Machu Pichu, possibly one of the great sights (and sites) of the world would have been a major disappointment. So we persevered and got ourselves to Cusco and the so called overlanders retreat of Quintalala high up on the hills above the city.

We had been in touch with the Dutch owners of Quintalala prior to leaving RSA and again just before getting to Cusco to check they had space for us. Even though there was a big
annual  festival on at the time of our visit they assured us there would be space and could accommodate us. We had as one does a preconceived vision of the place which was one of a nice, rural, well sorted place to stay a few days outside the city and its possible attendant risks. Quintalala in fact turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Its location was fine even if one needed to take a taxi back from the city centre unless one wanted to take on the steepwalk in the thin air (taking the car was out of the question). But the site itself was frankly a mess and looked in dire need of some basic tidying up and TLC. The grassed part on which around 10 trucks could be accommodated was only level in a few places (quite important if you sleep in your vehicle); the rest of the site was either a jumble of untidy terracing inaccessible to any vehicle or steeply wooded. Worst of all for a potential capacity of upwards of 30 to 40 people there was just one shower and loo stupidly combined in one rather tackybuilding instead of at least separating them so they could be used independently. Next to it was a very basic sort of shed with a none too clean gas stove and a sink with just cold water. We also wondered about the security of the site as the perimeter was not that well protected and the entrance gate often not secured or even monitored.

We soon found out that the Dutch owners were not there but in Guatemala and had left the site to be run by Mili, a local lass who lived in a somewhat run down looking house in one
corner of the site. A collection of dogs (presumably belonging to the owners) ran around the site for much of the day chasing the chickens and probably peeing on any of our belongings on the ground. The site only got any morning sunshine quite late in the day so was chilly for those of us in vehicles without fancy interior heating systems. We paid the 15 Soles (about 45 Rands) each per night for staying at Quintalala but honestly felt if they had spent some time, effort and money tidying the place up and providing some better ablutions we would have happily paid more. Disappointing yes, but it is at present the only place at which to camp in or around Cusco….

The city of Cusco, at least that part of it close to the main Plaza de Armas, is very attractive and full of character. But it is also the jumping off place for those who have come from far and wide to visit the hugely popular Machu Pichu and attempt the famous Inca Trail, one way of getting to the famous old Inca town perched on its hilltop high up above the Urubamba River and its hugely impressive gorge usually referred to as the Sacred Valley. We were to be two more of those thousands so had to decide which of the various ways to go to get to Machu Pichu.

The classic way is via the multiday Inca trail, a strenuous hike over several steep ascents and one which we honestly felt was a bit beyond us suffering as we had been from the effects of the altitude and to a lesser extent from the cold night time temperatures. So we took the “soft option” and elected to drive from Cusco to Ollantaytambo some distance down the Sacred Valley and basically as far as one can take a vehicle. There we would camp for the night at a parking lot we had heard about and then take the train from there to Agua Calientes at the end of the line which was rated as one of the great scenic train rides in the world. From Agua Calientes we could get a bus up the mountain road to the top of the surrounding mountains and Machu Pichu perched on the top.

So whilst in Cusco we went to the Peru Rail offices on the main square and booked our trip on the train along with paying for the entrance fee to Machu Pichu. It took a while as the over eager salesman messed up the calculations initially and had to redo the whole thing. We also shopped in the city centre and found the up till then elusive bencina (benzene) with which we now wanted to power our MSR camping stove. Till then we had been running it on diesel which with the appropriate jet installed it was designed to run on but didn’t do so reliably due to the jet clogging repeatedly because of the lousy, sulphur ridden local grade of diesel
in these parts.

A new still camera was needed to replace our much loved Panasonic Lumix nicked by Puno’s robbers and we found it in Cusco. A well designed Nikon looking much like the Lumix but
with a bit more resolution and the added bonus of built in GPS to help with working out with “where the hell was that”. As the Nikon could also do HD video we decided to forgo buying another video camera too. Even with the paltry payout we might get from our travel insurance policy in due course it was just too much additional and unplanned expense. We couldn’t go to Machu Pichu without a camera or for that matter do much more travelling without one so the Nikon was first on the shopping list.

As for finding another laptop we soon discovered that Cusco was not that well endowed with computer stores. Another overlander staying at Quintalala had also had his laptop stolen
whilst in Peru and had managed to find a well priced and suitable replacement in Lima. He gave us the name of the store and we decided to wait till we reached the capital so for the time being updating this blog was put on hold. 

Our trip down to Ollantaytambo was a nice drive for much of the way following the railway line from Cusco and taking one down to welcome lower altitudes and the resulting warmer weather. The road was good tar for most of the way, the scenery impressive with big mountains all around and the valley floor a mix of agricultural plots in among old, straggly buildings in and around the towns and villages en route. Also, a pleasant and very welcome surprise – the speed humps at the entrance to and throughout the built up areas were for once well marked avoiding the last minute slamming on of the brakes we had often been forced to resort to when coming to the unmarked ones we had encountered elsewhere in parts of Peru.

The parking lot where we knew we could rough camp overnight in Ollantaytambo was basically just that, a cleared site not far from the train station with a degree of security in the
form of walls and a gate but just a “hole in the floor” toilet. Ollantaytambo itself was like a scaled down version of Cusco – lots of tourist trap stalls and eating places mostly offering the same stuff which in the case of the eateries is very often headed by pizzas. Why the Peruvians seem to have got it in their heads that all tourists want is pizza is beyond us! There are some impressive Inca ruins up on the mountainside overlooking the town and the narrow cobbled alleyways originally laid out in Inca times that bisect the blocks of stone buildings are very appealing and photogenic. One has to admire the dry, beautifully cut stonework with which the Incas constructed their buildings – not a sign of mortar anywhere and all done with simple hand tools. 

On 27th June we got up early in our car park camp, locked Jambo up and walked the short
distance down the hill to the train station to join the milling crowds also waiting to make the trip down the Sacred Valley to Agua Calientes. It certainly is a spectacular ride although not quite in the same league in terms of on board luxury as intimated in the video ads for the trip comparing it with our world famous Blue Train between Cape Town and Johannesburg! On arrival in Agua Calientes (meaning hot water as there are hot springs in the area) we immediately boarded one of the mid sized busses that slog their way up and down the unpaved gravel road that winds its way across the precipitous slopes of the surrounding mountains and which eventually spit you out at the entrance to Machu Pichu itself next to a very posh hotel owned by Orient Express. Being the hugely popular tourist destination it is it pays to arrive at Machu Pichu as early as possible before the hordes of other visitors. Even so by the time we arrived there were probably close to 1000 people swarming over this, one of the most awe inspiring vistas one can find anywhere. There is simply nothing else in ourexperience that comes close. Much has been written about Machu Pichu so we are not going to add to it. Those interested should just Google it – its discovery and possible reason for being are all well documented. But as what must be the most unusual place to build a town at any time in history it sure takes some beating!

We spent some four and half hours there wandering around the ancient stonework of the town, looking down first from above then descending to the same level as the centuries old
edifices overlooking the stunning mountain and gorge scenery. The numbers of arriving visitors increased minute by minute until by the time we were ready to leave after eating our picnic lunch the whole place was awash with bodies. The Peruvians must be making a tidy pile of cash out of Machu Pichu – we just hope they put the revenue to good use to avoid over exploitation of this very special place…..

After another night at the Ollantaytambo car park we headed back to Cusco and Quintalala for a last stopover and then it was time to say goodbye to Cusco and point Jambo’s nose west towards the Pacific coast some 450 kms away. We were overdue for some thicker air, hopefully a bit of real heat and a change of scenery. It was too far to make the coast in one day and the road whilst well surfaced and not too hectically busy was twisty and spent much of its time running up and down mountains. So we stopped off about halfway in a nice quiet village and parked ourselves on the grassy site of a small restaurant where in season riverrafting trips were organized. Next day we were back on the road climbing for ever higher as we negotiated the last of the mountain ranges that parallel the coast sometimes reaching close to 5000m ASL. Then at last the road came to the sterile and super dry desert than forms a massive wall between the inland mountains and the Pacific. It was here that finally the road began its long, looping descent around myriad hairpins and sweeping bends from 1000s of metres high down to sea level before spitting us out in the somewhat wild west town of Nasca. We could almost feel the air thickening as we made our way down this tortuous road, well designed that it is but very slow going. And it was with much glee we kept our eyes glued to the outside air temperature indicator which soon went past 20 ̊.

We had picked up some info from other overlanders about a place in Nasca called La Maison Suisse where we understood we could camp in the car in their garden. This turned out to be true and in fact there were a couple of overland truck company trucks parked there along with a German couple in their camper. But that was about it because the supposed hot water showers didn’t materialize as with typical Peruvian efficiency the hot water system for those rooms whose bathrooms we were allowed to use had run out of gas. And in spite of endless chivvying to get the receptionist to find the right guy to change the empty cylinder for a new one it didn’t happen. Only when we threatened manslaughter to the next staff person who shook their head and did nothing more did we get allocated another room which DID have hot water in its bathroom!

One of the overland trucks parked at the hotel was from Dragoman, a company whose trucks we have encountered in several different parts of the world. We went to have a chat with their passengers and the two girls from Dragoman manning the truck. They kindly gave us some info on places to visit and stay further north. They were two very resourceful lasses piloting a big heavy truck through parts of south America with the added responsibility of carrying paying passengers and getting them safely to the end of their trip.

Nasca is the place where the famous “Nasca Lines” are located. There still seems to be some doubt about the origins and meaning of these strange geometrical markings that cover a huge tract of flat desert a few kms to the north of Nasca. There are straight lines as well as outlines of bird and animal like figures which are best viewed by paying a lot of money to go up in a light aircraft from Nasca and be flown over that part of the desert. Like many others we had met who had been to Nasca before us we didn’t fly over the lines but decided to stop off at a lookout hill close to the main road which passes next to the lines as we headed out of
Nasca the following day. Needless to say we could see little other than a few lines in the sand and rock that angled away into the far distance. It was tempting to suspect that some enterprising light aircraft pilots from around Nasca had got together some while back and hired a few earth movers and graders overnight to produce these weird marks on the earth’s surface thereby creating an instant tourist attraction….

What DOES give it all some credibility however is that a few kms further to the north in the next town is the home and now museum dedicated to Maria Reich, a German researcher
who spent much of her life investigating and chronicling the Nasca Lines. However, it seems even she was never quite sure what they were or who formed them.

We continued northwards on the main Panamerica road which more or less follows the coast
and  which is largely desert. There are surprisingly green areas every few kms in the flatter parts of the landscape where obviously both the ground is fertile and there must be plenty of water for irrigation, probably from underground. As usual we had to contend with the antics of some of the local truck and bus drivers along this stretch who will attempt what appears to be not only the impossible with their vehicles but also with a big dose of blind faith in surviving their daft driving. It sure keeps one on one’s toes!

Further north we came to the Paracas National Reserve, a pure desert peninsula that juts out from the mainland where we believed we could camp for the night. On one side there is a
large bay on which some ugly beachside holiday developments were rearing their heads. Further around the bay is a large and inaccessible commercial port which we guessed was an outlet for either the big commercial fishing companies based nearby or for perhaps oil shipments. On the other southern side of the reserve we found Lagunillas, a little group of buildings huddled around a fishing jetty next to a bay full of small, anchored fishing boats. To get to it from the end of the tarred road entailed a long swing around the bay on corrugated and sometimes soft patches of sand where we passed one local group digging their pick up out of one such patch. We ended up camping behind  the jetty at Lagunillas for the night, free. There were toilets nearby but their water supply had dried up and only next morning did the fishermen start up a pump to refill the tanks on its roof. There were a couple of restaurants right there behind the jetty and of course we could not resist the temptation of a seafood supper where we sat being entertained by the locals whilst watching the hazy sun set behind the desert hills of the peninsula. They also told us about a tsunami that had struck the area some 5 years earlier and whose 11m high waves had not only destroyed their village and much else on the nearby coast but had also taken the lives of several of their friends. They told us they only had 25 minutes warning of the impending arrival of this huge wall of water and some had found it impossible to get far enough inland or high enough to avoid its huge destructive power.

Pisco, a town further along the coast after which the national beverage Pisco is named, was largely destroyed in the massive 8.0 Richter Scale earthquake that spawned the tsunami. We hope we’re not around when one of these monsters unleashes itself on this earthquake zone.

Also camped there were a young couple, he from Colombia, she from Switzerland, both aid workers who were soon to head to Ivory Coast where she would be working as an engineer on water projects for the Red Cross. They had their children with them plus a niece and somehow they all squashed into their bright orange Kombi camper for the night after their fish barbeque. They were a delightful and very well traveled family and very informative about Colombia passing on some handy hints and info for us.

We were headed for Lima still some way to the north so we made one more overnight stop in the coastal town of Cerro Azul, another place that 5 years down the line still appeared not to have fully recovered from the earthquake and tsunami with the remains of beachside buildings still forlornly standing on parts of the beach. We slept overnight at the Cerro Azul Hostal, really a hotel for all intents and purposes, managing to convince the manageress that breakfast Peruvian style (coffee, bread and jam) should be included in the room price. That evening we enjoyed a seafood supper in one of the almost totally deserted restaurants just
along the beach front – we did wonder when, if at all, the place got busy with visitors. The guide books said it was a popular surfing spot: we didn’t see one surfer!

From there it was the last few 100 kms here to Lima the capital of Peru where we planned on spending some time, buying a new laptop so we could get back on line, getting the blog
going again, getting a service for Jambo and generally kicking back a bit so that we could relax and plan our next moves northward. Luckily, we still had all of the detailed Peru GPS mapping on our Garmin GPS which had been downloaded from Perurut on the internet. Without getting into and around any big city like Lima is a nightmare as direction signs round these parts are scarce if not nonexistent. Sure enough, the GPS took us straight and without
one mistake to the front door of the Hitchhikers Backpackers Hostel in Calle Bolognesi where we could park Jambo safely in their yard and where we could enjoy their great hospitality and facilities. Excellent hot showers, a good kitchen, cable TV and a generally fast wi-fi/internet connection. Peter, one of their friendly staff, took us around and showed us where everything was when we arrived which is a nice touch sadly lacking at many places to stay in south America. Next to us in the yard were Janet and Chris from the UK who had been travelling in their camper for a good deal longer than us and were fun to be with for a day or two.

The hostel is located in the embassy zone of Miraflores, an upmarket and very pleasant suburb of Lima, within walking distance of the sea as well as an excellent if pricey supermarket, a fast Laundromat and Parque Kennedy where we found Ripleys a smart department store where we found a new Lenovo laptop to replace our stolen one and at a price which I doubt we could have found it for back home. Furthermore, Andrea, the sweet and very capable sales assistant in their computer section, not only helped out with her good command of English in making sure we got what we wanted in terms of accessories and extra software but also succeeded a day or so later in getting MS Office which they had installed for us changed from Spanish to English after a long trawl through Microsoft’s website. Well
done, Andrea, you went “the extra mile” for us for which we are most grateful. We hope you enjoyed the chocolates!

We also managed to get a major service done on Jambo at British Motors, a non franchised LR agency owned by Antonio Talledo, a truly charming gentleman and a Land Rover
enthusiast of long standing whose father had started the business back in the days of Series1s. Antonio’s guys sweated blood as sadly for them after fitting the new fuel filter I supplied along with the other filters the car flatly refused to start. Fuses were checked, air bled from the fuel lines (we thought) but no go – dead! We suspected the immobilizer and even tried re-entering the engine management system security code. As it got dark we realized we would not be sleeping in the car back at the hostal but Antonio kindly organized his driver to take us back there leaving the car at his workshop, and he very generously paid for a room for us at the hostal. Thanks, Antonio, you are another in Lima who went beyond the normal call of duty and we really appreciate your kind offer. They finally found the cause of the problem – a loose wire on the tank mounted fuel pump – and we soon had Jambo back, shining clean again and ready for another 20,000 kms.

Also having work done at British Motors on their Defender camper were the French family of
Jean-Francois, Estelle, Jeremie and Hugo Subrini whom we had first met on the side of the road when we were en route from Puno to Cusco. We met up again at Quintalala and then bumped into them when we were being naughty having a burger at the Burger King in Miraflores in Lima. They were in the process of settling in Peru after buying a rural property far inland from the coast, but initially had to live in Lima for a while and get their boys into a local school. Their Td5 needed some work doing plus some new shocks so they were waiting for Antonio to track down the parts which as always takes a few days especially as in their
case the vehicle was not exactly standard with its big and I guess quite hefty camper body on the back. I know one thing though – Estelle could certainly drive it at a good lick which we recalled when catching up with them on one of the passes before reaching Cusco!

We walked the sea front at Lima, high up on the barren stony cliffs behind which Miraflores is
located. The sky was for every day except one overcast which is apparently normal in Lima at this time of year but it was warm, around 20 degrees most days, and we enjoyed our stay here at the Hitchhikers Backpackers Hostel. We spent one day travelling by bus through the more chaotic and older parts of the city to the Plaza de Armas in the city centre with its bright yellow buildings and beautifully carved timber balconies and ended up having lunch at one of the numerous pavement restaurants surrounding the square. But this part of the city, whilst full of nice old buildings did not have the relaxed and safer feel of Miraflores where we were staying. After a while, and after our experience in Puno, we were getting a little tired of the extra precautions it seems one must adopt at all times in the towns and cities of Peru. Maybe it was time to move on: Ecuador beckoned and most of the people we had met to date who had been there were of the opinion it was a big improvement on Peru.

Ecuador, don’t disappoint us please.

Cheers from Lima.

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Maak Junes on

You shud have taken elisters bruk hond with you. Thet thing is sevage. It wud hav bitten thair hands off. Problem was the dugs bed breth man in a confined space wud hev been awfull. So guess prububly beta thet dog did nut go with u after all. Eny way sorry to hear the bed news. I suppose lukking on the bright side at least you dont have a bruk hond sharing yur car. xxxxxx

Jones's in Fish Hoek on

Jeepers - don't know how you can make sense of anything Mark says!! :-)
We just wanted to say a big happy birthday to River Granny!!! hope you have a good day today - when you coming home - we miss you!!! lots and lots of love Callum & Kelsey xxxx

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