Lcuy's 2011 Cambodian Odyssey

Oct 10th, 2011, 12:39 AM
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Lcuy's 2011 Cambodian Odyssey

The Fast Summary

Sept 12: Fly Honolulu-LA-Tokyo- Bangkok ($1600)

Sept 14: Sleep at the Bangkok Airport Novotel ($160)

Sept 15: Fly Bangkok Airways to Siem Reap, Cambodia ($222)

Sept 15- Oct 2: Stay at 7 Candles Guesthouse ($20/night)
Teach art classes most days to the kids in Khnar Village

Oct 2: Fly on Air Asia to Singapore, via Kuala Lumpur ($95)
Stay at the Studio M Hotel at Clarke Quay in Singapore ($152)

Oct 3: Switch to The Albert Court Village in Singapore ($148)

Oct 4: Fly back to Honolulu, again stopping in Tokyo and LA.

The Full Story

When one of my daughters began attending Boston University in 2005, my first parent visit happily coincided with the big Boston Fodor’s GTG. I returned each year, even after she graduated, and would often have some pretty far-flung “side trips” based on my haunting looking for cheap add-ons.

One year my husband and I went to Singapore and a Tokyo GTG “for only $400 more”. Another year I added on NYC, a wedding in Las Vegas, and San Diego for “only $200 more”. Last year I flew from Boston to Cambodia, where I met up with my daughter and we taught English with the Ponheary Ly Foundation for a few weeks. It was an amazing experience:

This year, after the death of Boston GTG Co-founder GPanda, Bob and Karen decided to defer this year’s GTG. While I fully agreed with their decision, it left me without my regular excuse to jet off around the world. I decided that I would go back to Cambodia again, this time on my own.

I had planned to be in Asia for six weeks from late September to early November. I wanted to volunteer with the for two weeks, visit Laos for a week in the middle, then return for another two weeks of teaching in Siem Reap.

However, my plans were squelched when the woman who essentially runs our office got pregnant with a due date of October 8. Each month, from the 5th through the 10th, we have to disburse about 200 checks to owners and vendors from the property management side of our business. Only she and I are familiar with the software and procedures, so I rescheduled my trip from September 12 to October 4.

I knew I would now run into the rainy season, but was happy to discover that Cambodian schools are on summer break during this period, so I could do less formal classes with kids who would come on their own time. I was very excited as the hardest part of teaching last year was squeezing in all we wanted to do in the strictly one hour classes.

I collected craft supplies – including 50 shirts for tie dying, vitamins, medical items, school backpacks and other items to donate. I arrived at Honolulu airport with a 70 lb bag, 35 lb bag, and a 20 lb wheeled carryon. As I normally travel very light, I felt somewhat embarrassed to look so burdened down. Luckily, I checked in the two monster bags (free with my status on Continental) and would not see them again till Bangkok.

Continental usually upgrades Platinum members to biz/first when there are available seats, but does not do so on the long-haul flights over the Pacific. I was very pleased to have my boarding pass replaced with a first class assignment as I boarded my first flight, especially as it was a night flight.

LA, and my United flights to Narita and Bangkok all passed in a blur. I was disappointed to note the there were tons of Biz class seats on both those flights that remained empty while I sat just out of reach in the front economy section. ☹ At least I had an empty seat next to me on both flights.

I chose not to go into the city in Bangkok, mainly due to my huge amount of luggage. I had booked a room on at the Bangkok Airport Novotel for $160, including taxes. When I exited the airport at about midnight, their free shuttle was right outside the airport door. I was checked in and in my very comfortable bed about 20 minutes later!

My flight to Siem Reap the next day wasn’t till 5 pm, so I slept in till about 10 am. I had the hotel’s breakfast buffet, and then lounged at the pool the rest of the day. The Novotel is nice in that your room rate is not based on calendar days, but instead is good for 24 hours from the time you arrive.

As the bellman hoisted my 70 lb suitcase onto the shuttle, CRACK, the handle broke! He felt terrible, but it was a very old bag, so no big loss. Luckily, it had two permanent web straps that provided an awkward, but workable handle.

After a very rough flight, we arrived in Siem Reap at about 6:30 pm. I was the first one off the plane and in line for a visa. It took only 5 or 6 minutes from when I handed over my photo and $20 till I was given back my passport with the visa.

I knew someone from 7 Candles would be picking me up, but I wasn’t sure who it would be. Last year, my daughter and I had become very attached to our tuk tuk driver, Sovann, but I’d found out he was now attending cooking school instead of driving a tuk tuk. However, it was really wonderful to find Sovann there when I came outside! We piled my stuff onto his tuk tuk and headed into town as the sky changed from day to night.

Siem Reap has a very distinct aroma. They use wood fires for cooking, so the smoke, the rice fields, temple incense, and animal smells all blend into a pleasant smell that instantly triggers a certain portion of your memory. That, plus the sultry evening warmth, just washed over me and I felt like I had arrived home again.
lcuy is offline  
Oct 10th, 2011, 01:34 AM
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super nice report thanks for posting

brings back fond memories...
qwovadis is offline  
Oct 10th, 2011, 02:35 AM
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Good start Lucy - a great way to begin my Monday morning!
Craig is offline  
Oct 10th, 2011, 03:47 AM
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Loving another report from you, Lucy. I'm assuming your title s/be 2011 (or else this is a veeeerryy delayed TR (haha.. gpanda would be on your case about that).

Hmmm, so LAX-NRT had lots of empty seats in biz. I'm flying that route next week, and have not yet been upgraded on that segment on my way to BKK. Fingers crossed.

Interesting to know about Novotel rates being for a 24hr period. I wish more hotels would do that!!

Now you know how it is travelling 'heavy' to Asia. I do it on the way home from there a lot!

I missed not having the BOS GTG too. I ended up flying off the Tampa/St Pete Beach for 5 days instead of the usual BOS. We'll meet up there again next year though!
simpsonc510 is offline  
Oct 10th, 2011, 06:34 AM
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This is wonderful and I can't wait to read more.

Even though there is no Boston GTG this beautiful holiday weekend, many of the folks who would have been there (or here, in my case) will come together in reading your TR with evident delight.
marya_ is offline  
Oct 10th, 2011, 06:43 AM
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aloha lucy, welcome home. mahalo for the report. keep it coming.
kuranosuke is offline  
Oct 10th, 2011, 07:03 AM
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Great start. Love those 24 hour rooms on the rare occasions I get one! Didn't know it was a Novotel regular feature.
thursdaysd is offline  
Oct 10th, 2011, 08:39 AM
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Great start, had worried about your weather there. More, more, more!

hawaiiantraveler is offline  
Oct 10th, 2011, 07:49 PM
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OMG---a report without any prodding...

heading to bkk on tuesday next so hurry and type the rest..

we missed GTG but book now for next year
rhkkmk is offline  
Oct 12th, 2011, 02:04 AM
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Lori, the president of the PLF, and Marina, Ponheary Ly’s sister, met me at Seven Candles Guesthouse. The other 18 members of the Ly family were all at Sihanoukville for a short beach vacation, so it was very quiet.

My first day was very low key. There had been a lot of rain and flooding the previous week, but now it was cool and sunny. Lori told me where I’d be teaching, and we figured out my class schedule for the two weeks. We were in the middle of the Chum Ben holidays, and it was unclear exactly which days the kids would be off.

I did some digging in the PLF art supply boxes and pulled out items I wanted to use, then re-organized and labeled the boxes. I then went out exploring by bicycle along the river north of town. I stopped once to buy a sun hat, and then again to get a drink at a place called River Garden. It turned out to be a lovely place with very tropical gardens, a pool that is open to the public (towels are $1, pool is free with any food or drink purchase from their poolside bar or the café. . It was very pleasant and I ended up chatting with some of the staff and guests for a while. I was tempted to sign up for their cooking class (Cooks in Tuk Tuks) or one of their stone carving classes. Later I did some shopping at the Old Market, then hung out on the second floor of the Blue Pumpkin, where they have good snacks, nice AC and free wi-fi.

On Sunday, Lori, some of the staff of the PLF and I went out to a rural school to participate in a march against child labor. We walked about a kilometer with lots of school kids, some parents, teachers, and two guys on a motorbike with a sound system. My first Cambodian protest march!

After the speeches were over, we continued out to Khnar village, where I’d be doing my summer fun. Chenda, an English teacher at Khnar school, has a thatched-roof room next to her home. It had five long “desks” and benches to match. I figured we could fit 20 kids into the space for each of my two hours classes, but i had as many as 37 sitting there on some days. I forgot that this is a country where motorbikes often carry families of six!

I loved that we were right in the middle of several homes. Over the course of my two weeks I’d get to know Chenda’s family, the neighbors, the resident dogs, the chickens and roosters, and the big pig next door. He would often get in arguments with the dogs and provide lots of good laughs.

We told Chenda to spread the word that I’d be there Monday at 8 am, and then went down to Khnar school to see if they were ready for opening day the next week. They weren’t, as the jungle has a way of refilling all empty space when a school sits empty for any length of time! The word was also put out that Monday would be a cleaning day for teachers and students. I’m not sure what this method of communication is called; in Hawaii we call it the “coconut wireless”. It worked well, whatever they call it.

Later that afternoon, Khnar English teacher Souvanny stopped by the guesthouse to talk with Lori. He is the teacher we worked with last year, and we were both really happy to catch each other. His wife had just had a baby, and when I said I love babies, he offered to take me to his home to see her. We hopped on his motorbike, and took off down the wet roads along the river. Poor thing, the lanes leading to his home were all underwater. It was quite an exciting trip, and I just kept praying if we tipped over that I wouldn’t swallow too much of the water!

I always feel very honored when I’m invited to someone’s home in Asia. It doesn’t happen all that often. Souvanny’s wife was very gracious and their baby so cute that I had a wonderful time.

The next day was Sunday, so I again had a free day. I knew there was a place to go riding horses, but we couldn't find the name or phone number. Tuk tuk driver Denny thought he knew where it was, so we decided to just take a chance and go out there. Denny was going to be driving me to school every day, so this was our first outing together. Because of the previous rains, a lot of the roads were in terrible shape with potholes, mud and big puddles. I was pleased to find that Denny was a careful driver and his English was very good.

We got out to the Happy Ranch about 8:30, and they were happy to take me on a ride. The ranch is very organized with clean stables. They provide lockboxes for your stuff, good helmets, water, and waist packs to carry your essentials- in my case, sunscreen, scarf, chapstick, camera. I was offered a choice of Western or English saddles, and both my guide and I had beautiful horses. He pointed out that his was Cambodian, so short and beautiful and mine was Vietnamese/Arabian, so taller and more stubborn. I ‘m pretty sure it was an ethnic joke, so I laughed.

We rode through a beautifully landscaped path on the ranch, then crossed a street and traveled through rice paddies, past small villages, and by a large pagoda with a big celebration happening.

At one point, we were on a long straight dirt road, so the guide asked if I wanted to trot. I did, and we had a nice time, especially when we passed a bunch of Korean tourists. They all whipped out their cameras to photograph “locals on horseback”, and then realized it was me…

It was hot, and my horse did not like following the other horse closely, so the guide and I didn’t talk much. He did point out interesting things along the way, however, and I enjoyed the quiet. It was a really nice ride.

Back at the ranch, I met the owner of Happy Ranch. Because he had worked with Americans at some point, he had been able to immigrate to California in 1975. After raising his family he came back to help rebuild Cambodia. We caught up on American slang, polite vs. casual words, and various other things while I sat under a fan and had chilled water. He mentioned that they open at 5:30 in the morning and that their morning rides are a scenic way to watch the sun come up over the rice fields. If you want to do this, call at 5 AM and they’ll tell you if the skies are clear. It's $22 for a one-hour ride; each additional hour is cheaper.

After Denny brought me back to Seven Candles, I again got on my bike and headed back to the River Garden. This time I had my swimsuit, so I had their lunch special (Chicken Wonton noodles and two lime juices for $4), then read and swam at the pool for a few hours. On my way home, I picked up a baby gift for Souvanny and snacks for my classes tomorrow.
lcuy is offline  
Oct 12th, 2011, 05:00 AM
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Sounds like fun...the horse ride. What a unique way to see the area. What type of art projects are did you make?
kmkrnn is offline  
Oct 12th, 2011, 06:26 AM
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WOW, sounds like a fab time... why don't you rent a horse and ride to school each day?
rhkkmk is offline  
Oct 12th, 2011, 10:26 AM
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Ha ha Bob. Actually, I like that idea!, Too bad the Happy Ranch is in the opposite direction of the school. Although it would have made an interesting trip report: finding the most comfortable saddles, and hay vs. lotus leaves for fodder... Fodder for Fodor's.

I try to go horse riding everywhere I travel, Karen. Some have really been fabulous, others just relaxing, but I always feel like I've seen a different view.

Art projects coming up tonight, hopefully.
lcuy is offline  
Oct 12th, 2011, 11:24 AM
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I'm loving your report, lcuy!
Kathie is offline  
Oct 12th, 2011, 11:41 AM
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Loving it. Fodder for fodors.... in more ways than one!
simpsonc510 is offline  
Jan 4th, 2012, 01:25 AM
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Yikes...I forgot about this! sorry for the delay..

Besides the kids, one of the best parts about working out in Khnar village is the 45 minute commute in a tuk tuk. The first 5 minutes are along a busy road with hundreds of business and two major markets. The next 5 or ten minutes are along the wide, attractive, but sparsely landscaped entrance roads to the Angkor temple complex. At the actual entrance kiosk, the guards would always ask my driver for my temple pass, then they would walk over to the tuk tuk when he’d tell them that I was going to teach, not tour. They’d look at my school supply boxes and our matching PLF tee shirts then wave us through, sometimes reminding me, “no temples”.

After this corner, the road was more interesting. Trees, and jungle vegetation were on either side of the road with rice fields and sugar palms spreading off into the distance. We rode by several temples, along the large reservoir (East Boray?) and past some of the tourist restaurants. I became more rural along the country road dotted with small homes, more rice fields, tethered water buffalo and cattle, a small village, and lots people- sitting, working, walking and bicycling. At the speed of a tuk tuk, you can make eye contact, so the ‘hello’s got more personal each day we went by. Some days, I’d put on my ipod and listen to my favorite music as we traveled along. It felt really good to be alive and out in such a beautiful part of the world.

As I mentioned above, I figured my “classroom” could fit 20, maybe 25 kids, but knowing Cambodia, I brought lots of supplies. Good thing as I arrived and found 37 kids waiting for me! They ranged in age from about 8 to 16. Probably 12 of them were from my English classes last year. I had really missed them, so to see them back again nearly brought me to tears. Luckily I had 37 kids wondering what we were going to do, and I had to scramble to organize the day’s supplies all the while dying in the heat and humidity.

I had paper Mardi Gras masks, pens, glue, glitter, and feathers. All the kids had a blast personalizing the masks. Both Chenda and Denny helped with the translating and passing out stuff. I had brought my music for the Hukilau Hula, so at the end, I asked if anyone wanted to learn the hula and was surprised by how excited they were. Apparently the kids from last year had been dancing it sans music and wanted to do the real thing!

We ended the morning, by deciding the older kids would have their own class at 10 am and the younger ones at 8, fed the kids cookies, and took off to howls of laughter as Denny and I wore our Mardi Gras masks down the road.

Tuesday I didn’t have a class. A friend of Lori’s from Texas was sponsoring a lunch for the students at Koh Ker school and I was invited along. Koh Ker is a rural school in an extremely poor area that the PLF adopted just a few years ago. At the time, most of the kids were seriously malnourished and had little clean water. Fodorite Kristina tells how several kids died during the week they PLF debated whether to take on such a distant school.

Koh Ker is about 3 hours from Siem Reap. The van was loaded inside and on top with cases and cases of noodles, vegetables and soy milk. We took off at dawn, and stopped along the way to pick up a huge bag of chopped meat. Once at Koh Ker, we had to unload the van about half a kilometer from the school as the roads were too muddy. About two dozen kids came and carried all the supplies, so it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

At the school, carrots and cabbage were chopped, the 200 little packets of soup base and 200 packets of chili oil were all opened and drained and the it was all cooked in a huge wok over an open fire. We were able to feed all the kids at least 3 servings of the noodles. These are very poor kids, so it is both amazing and heartwarming to see the tiny ones eat so much and with such gusto.

As we finished cleaning up, the skies just opened up and we huddled in the cooking shed while it pounded down. Unfortunately, I slipped as we were leaving and landed on my back in the mud. The good news was that I was washed clean by the time we walked to the little restaurants by the temples out there. The bad news was that the water was now knee deep and we had to walk barefoot to keep from losing our shoes. Alin, one of the staff, has really sweet and kept showing me the best places to walk in the swirling water.

We had hoped tour the small temples, but it was just too wet. Instead, we drove out to the new dormitory at Srayang and dropped supplies off for the 20 or so resident students and the house mom. It’s very basic, but also a very home-y place for the kids to live while they complete school. It was amazing how much they had done in one year.

It was a long drive home, as we were all soaking wet, and the van had to go very slowly in the rain. Thank goodness I had a really good hot shower waiting for me!

On Wednesday, there was some concern the kids wouldn’t be able to come to class because of the rain, but Denny and I decided to go anyway. It was pouring, but he put on his rain poncho and zipped down the plastic rain covers on the tuk tuk and we headed off.

Sure enough, no one was there when we arrived, but about 3 minutes later they started appearing out of nowhere. That day we made collages from pictures in magazines and did some sketching. The second (older) class also made collages and learned about prospective and creating depth in their drawings. We did a bit of water color painting too.

Shortly after we left, a flash flood occurred about 3 km up the road at Banteay Srei. Nearly a hundred people were killed, the road was washed out, and many tourists had to be brought back to Siem Reap by helicopter. Back in Siem Reap, the river had overflowed its banks and Wat Bo Road was a foot deep in water, and it was rising pretty fast.

Ponheary and all the family, housekeepers, and tuk tuk drivers were hauling all the uniforms, shoes, backpacks and school supplies for 2500 kids up to the second floor. You can imagine how much stuff they had packed in the storerooms as the opening day of school was just a week away. They dismantled the ground floor computer lab and moved the equipment upstairs, then piled sandbags out across the entrance. Luckily the guesthouse is built a few feet higher than the road, so the situation wasn’t as bad as at many other businesses and homes in that area.

After the preparations were done, we all plopped ourselves into the lobby and front porch to watch the road, then the sidewalk disappear under water. We all sat out there talking and laughing and wondering when the power would go out. All the neighbors were doing the same, and lots of people were out in the road carrying stuff out of harm’s way.

We never lost power, and the water never entered our building, but over the next week the river (which was a block away) kept rising and the rain kept falling every night. Many businesses were flooded, Pub Street and the old market were closed for several days under a meter of water, and I got a little worried when all the nearby ATMs were either flooded or ran out of money. One new skill I learned was how to shuffle in the water, rather than picking up my feet and losing my shoes in the process. I carefully avoided the question of “what is in that water?”
lcuy is offline  
Jan 4th, 2012, 01:34 AM
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The next day, Denny and I again took to the road and it was quite an adventure this time. You know the water is high when people had fish traps laying out on the road!

Over the next two weeks, we decorated foam sun visors, made notebooks with foam covers, played games, did watercolors, braided friendship bracelets, made paper leis, and danced the Hukilau till I never wanted to hear it again. The best activity by far was tie-dying tee-shirts.

I had brought 50 white tee shirts from home, having collected them at garage sales, a tee shirt outlet and an unexpected 2 for 1 Hanes sale at Walmart. I think I averaged about 75 cents per shirt, then bought another 10 in Siem Reap for $2 each.You can get “Tulip’ tie dye kits that come with squirt bottles and dye that only needs to be mixed with cold water so I brought enough to do the 60 shirts. The kids swirled and pleated their shirts, secured them with rubber bands, then squirted them with 3 or four colors. When done, we put each one in a plastic bag to let them “cure” for four hours before rinsing.

When I got back to the guesthouse, I realized I was going to have to rinse and wring all 60 shirts in separate buckets of water to avoid them all turning gloppy brown. As luck would have it, the water was still knee deep in the road and it was raining again. I started rinsing them in buckets of the street water and next thing I knew, the housekeeping staff came out to help me. The shirts were quickly done, hung on the parked bicycles to drain/ continue rinsing in the rain, and later that evening I hung most of them on my covered balcony.

The next morning, they were still really wet. The rain had stopped, so we hung about 20 at a time from the roof of the tuk tuk. I’m sure we looked like gypsies in a wagon, as most people laughed and pointed at us. However, by the time we got out to Knar the shirts were no longer drippy, just damp.

One thing about an art activity is that the charity part is a little less obvious than just showing up with free stuff. I like to have the teachers pass out supplies; dying tee-shirts makes it more a by-product of the activity than a gift of a shirt.

I’ll have to say it was fun to see the excitement on the kids’ faces when we ‘unveiled’ each shirt. From the next day on, most of my kids wore those shirts every day, and Lori commented later that it seemed everywhere you looked in Knar there was a kid in a tie dye shirt.

I had thought the emotional goodbyes the first year were simply because was new to me. I expected it to be easier the second time around. At the end of my two weeks this year though, it was just as hard to say goodbye, even harder with the older girls. We all hugged and cried and promised not to forget each other, just like last year, but now I knew they really would remember me so it was even harder to leave.

Because I left each morning at 7 and got back into town before noon, I did a lot of other things in Siem Reap besides my art classes. At 3 am one morning, we took wads of 100 Riel notes and drove out to a temple outside of town to celebrate Chum Ben. We watched nuns and monks chant, then circled the temple making offerings outside in the darkness. Another day, I tagged along on a boat ride on the Tonle Sap. Twice, I had fabulous massages with scrubs at Frangipani Spa. Despite the wet roads, I did a lot of bike riding, went swimming, and had some very good meals at just a few of the excellent restaurants, I becames a “regular” at the local copy shop, school supply and convenience stores, celebrated a birthday at a new friend’s home, and enjoyed having plenty of time to wander or just sit and read.

One of my last activities was to buy one of the local trunks made out of aluminum and pack some stuff in the storeroom for my next trip. I know I’ll be back, so no need to haul everything back and forth, right? ☺

Next up: Two nights with just one day in Singapore. Reviews of my two hotels and seven meals
lcuy is offline  
Jan 4th, 2012, 05:44 AM
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Welcome back...I was thingking of you the other day. Glad you are finishing this report. Happy New year.
kmkrnn is offline  
Jan 4th, 2012, 07:54 AM
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you are the best!!
rhkkmk is offline  
Jan 4th, 2012, 07:59 AM
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Lcuy, I somehow missed the beginning of this report so I'm thrilled that you're finishing it...I think you worked in the same school where we delivered breakfast and taught the kids some songs. Awful about the flooding - however, your adventures has inspired me to follow in your footsteps now that I am an almost empty nester. Since we visited, I have sent some friends and acquaintances - one ended up staying for several months...I would love to do that if I ever have the time, but this report has convinced me to go for a few weeks sooner than later.
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