Discounts

Impressions from Hong Kong

Nightly Laser Show in HKThere are no two ways about it: Brooke and I have really enjoyed our time in Hong Kong. We really dig it here. We’ve been in town just long enough to get a taste for this unique city. Three days has been enough time to allow us to get a sampling that left us with a quality impression of Hong Kong. This is a city that manages to be both part of China, but not much at all like the rest of China.

As with every destination so far, we had some miscues upon first arriving. After rolling into town, we were quickly misled by signs indicating a “subway.” Turns out that a Subway here refers to subterranean passageways underground cross walk and complicated network of pedestrian tunnels scattered throughout the city. These help with the flow of streets and are far more often seen than traditional cross walks. The subways also have an added bonus of being a fantastic way to dodge the summer heat. Of course, we had misinterpreted the “subway” signs for an subterrain train (which is in fact commonly called the MTR).

Food at the Night MarketSpeaking of the heat, we have been knee deep in it. The sights of Hong Kong during the day have been plagued by some tenacious haze, but I suppose that’s what you get for visiting Southeast Asia in the middle of August. As unlikely as it sounds, it somehow keeps getting hotter and hotter as the day progresses into night. We’re pretty sure that by 8:00 PM it was hotter than it was at 2:00 PM! Baffling. As we head even further south into Vietnam and Singapore, we’re thankful that (so far) we’ve had no trouble finding places to stay that have functional, soothing Air Conditioning.

View from the 55th Floor of the IFC Tower!

Brooke and the View from the free 55th Floor gallery of the IFC Tower!

Over the course of several bus tours and self guided tours, we’ve taken in a pretty good chunk of the city. One of the great things about this trip has been being able to make connections. We were surprised to see that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is apparently alive and well beneath the HSBC Bank building in central Hong Kong. There is a public space beneath the bank’s giant tower, reputed to be Hong Kong’s best architectural example of feng shui, that apparently has been bereft of campers and protestors since October. A movement is underway to kick them out, but it is kinda cool to see what was happening all over America also in play in the middle of Hong Kong.

Speaking of banking, we’ve also found that Hong Kong hasn’t been the most inexpensive city, but it hasn’t been as costly as we expected a giant metropolis to be either. We’ve stumbled across some meals that are full of flavor, quick, cheap and no frills just the way we like it. But the (large) beers continually run us about seven dollars a pop. The only exception is during evening Happy Hours and in the outdoor markets where there are an abundance of deals to be found. In this weather, it is hard to resist a nice, cold beer in the middle of sight seeing during a hot day. We’ll keep looking for the perfect dive bar!

The famed Peninsula Hotel!Cost is all relative, I suppose, and flashy businessmen can be seen everywhere.The central neighborhood on Hong Kong Island is a spectacular mesh of glass and steel buildings banking, commerce, company headquarters and high quality hotels. It’s remarkable. There appears to be no end to the number of five star hotels. NEXT time, we will book a room at The Peninsula or the Ritz Carlton…or the Intercontinental! But that’s just one section of town. The culture here is a brilliant blend of 150 years of British colonial rule mixed with with an old Chinese City. The result is a mixed ethnicity, langauge and amusing juxtaposition like a Baptist church next to a market with fresh duck hanging in the window. One of our favorite common sites is buildings under construction with workers climbing on scaffolding…made of bamboo!

Bamboo Scaffolding could be found on buildings everywhere!

Bamboo Scaffolding could be found on buildings everywhere!

Hong Kong as seen from central with the HK's tallest building in the backgroundBeyond Hong Kong, as we continue to expand our world view, it’s been good to see that some things are universal. A bride in Cincinnati looks pretty identical to a bride in Guangzhou, there are lines at the post office no matter where we go, drunk 19 year-olds at a Hotel bar in Hong Kong act a lot like drunk 19 year olds in the states. My personal favorite is that the tired businessman who kept leaning on me while falling asleep on the subway in Tokyo reminded me a lot of the tired businessman who kept leaning on me while falling asleep in NYC.

And there are some shops we’ve found that are ubiquitous in any city. No matter where we’ve gone so far, we can count on seeing plenty of 7-11s (which have come in quite handy), Starbucks and McDonalds. Our one regret? We might have bought our souvenir set of Chopsticks too soon. Every other shop is selling an interesting set of chopsticks. It’s funny because when you are in the states, you never see stores falling over themselves to sell forks. I can’t wait to see what new experiences Vietnam brings. Onward!

–Phil

One of our favorite buildings- The twin Lippo Centre which are said to look like

One of our favorite buildings- The twin Lippo Centre which are said to look like Koala Bears climbing the building!

Brooke trying very hard to just get a dang spoon from the counter person at 7-11

Phil getting some food from the 7-11 – A surprisingly great place to get a quick bite

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Categories: China, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Discounts, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hong Kong

Cool Neon SignsDespite our many miscommunications and all efforts to the contrary, we managed to get on the right bus heading for Hong Kong!  Yay, off to experience a new part of China…technically.  It certainly does not feel like we are still in China.  Our first clue that Hong Kong would be different from Guangzhou was when we were required to go through customs and immigration.  No, Hong Kong is not under British control any longer.  It hasn’t been since 1997, however we had to wait in line for over an hour, fill out forms, get our passports inspected and then stamped in order to get in.  It was one of the most complex border crossings we have experienced yet, especially considering we didn’t really cross a border.

Hong Kong is a big place, but when discussing the city of Hong Kong, it really has two parts to it–the Hong Kong Island side and the Kowloon side.  We are staying on the Kowloon side, in the heart of it all.  This is as close to feeling like the middle of Times Square as I have felt on our trip thus far.  We are surrounded by stores, bars and a slew of restaurants.  When we walk down the street, we are approached every 15 seconds by a guy trying to sell us designer suits, watches and handbags.  It certainly isn’t a place I would want to live or even visit for too long, but it is really convenient being in the center of it all.  The Hong Kong Island side is the center for business and industry.  The skyline is filled with mammoth buildings, each one more impressive than the next, touting their company name in bold neon lights.  Every major bank and brand you can imagine has a spot on its waterfront, from HSBC to Hyundai.  It is a short ferry ride from Kowloon and it rivals New York City in its visual spectacle of high rises and well-dressed business people.

Bargains,, BargainsThese two sides of Hong Kong are part of what gives it a really awesome vibe.  It is urban and chic, with high-end shopping that overshadows 5th Avenue any day of the week.  But, at the same time it feels like an old city holding onto its traditions.  The Kowloon side is known for its markets, where vendors sell everything from knock-off handbags to high-end electronics.  As you might expect, nothing has a price marked and everything is negotiable.  While walking through the Night Market, Phil saw a set of bowls he liked and when he asked the price, the lady told him they were $165 Hong Kong Dollars (about $22 USD).  I immediately said that was too much and then the bargaining began.  She said she’d give them to us for $150.  When we walked away and said we had to think about it, she grabbed Phil, handed him a calculator and said, “How much?  How much you want?”  Phil punched in 100, figuring she’d say no.  It took her a minute, but she said yes.  I then began to dig through my wallet only to discover we only had $81 HKD.  We told her we didn’t have enough, so she asked if we had any American money.  We told her we didn’t and said we’d come back.  As we began to walk away, she shook her head, sighed heavily and said, “Okay.”  We were a little shocked.  We couldn’t believe that our lack of cash led to half-price bowls.  If only we had planned it that way we might be considered keen negotiators.  Oh well, we’ll take it!

As you might imagine, a city with so much to offer is packed with tourists.  In fact, this is probably the most touristy city we’ve visited thus far.  That suits us fine, and it is really interesting to see all kinds of people and hear a dozen different languages being spoken in the span of 20 minutes.  We are engaging in typical tourist activities, while also trying to involve ourselves with some locals.  The best way we’ve found to do this is by talking with the people at our hostel, Hop Inn.  They live and work in Hong Kong and have given us really excellent suggestions on local cuisine and places to get away from the tourists.  They led us to our two favorite meals we’ve had in a while, and we found ourselves smiling when we were in the equivalent to a New York City diner, curt manager and all.  It kind of felt like home.  As for the local fare, they love their instant noodles and bread.  My god, we have eaten so much bread we are turning into dough balls.  I never associated Chinese food with bread, but they love it here.  We had a hot buttered roll, drenched with sweetened condensed milk this morning.  Amazing.  I think  I’ll be bringing that idea back with me!

Hong Kong Big Bus tourWe ended our day with an hour-long bus tour of the Kowloon side of Hong Kong.  At 7pm it was only 90 degrees, much more tolerable than the heat of day.  It was easy to forget our sweaty thighs as we cruised through the city.  The streets, with neon signs hanging everywhere, are truly like something off a movie set.  It is exactly what you picture in your mind when you think of Hong Kong.  The tour ended with us on the waterfront, watching the nightly light display.  The skyscrapers on the shoreline dance with lights and beam lasers into the night sky set in time with music.  It was quite a vision–really spectacular.  Tomorrow we continue to discover Hong Kong Island by heading out to the countryside, going to Stanley Market and maybe even visiting a fishing village.  Phil also wants to head to Macau, but I’d hate for him to lose all of our money trying his hand at some Chinese table game he’s never played.  Well, maybe he’ll have beginners luck!

–Brooke

Ferry with Hong Kong's Tallest Building in the background

One of several ferries found in Victoria Harbor with Hong Kong’s Tallest Building in the background

Statue of Hong Kong's favorite son: Bruce Lee

Statue of Hong Kong’s favorite son: Bruce Lee

Spectacular Tokyo Skyline at Night

Spectacular Hong Kong Skyline at Night

Categories: China, City Visits, Customs, Discounts, Eating, Exploring, Landmarks, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

36 Hours in Guangzhou

The Stunning Guangzhou Tower!

The Stunning Guangzhou Tower!

Out of Japan and into China! We landed last night, negotiated another new subway system to our hotel and checked into the lovely Guangdong Dasha Hotel near the heart of Guangzhou. We’re back to driving on the right hand side of the road, but it looks like we’re done with drinking water out of the tap for a while.

Our biggest impression after a day in Guangzhou? It’s hard here. We felt more like foreigners than we ever have in our lives. There is such little English spoken or written on any signs in Guangzhou. For the first time, the langauge barrier became a hinderance and a real issue. A huge chunk of our communication today, from directions to asking for a to-go box for food, was done in half-sentences and pantomime. Relatively simple questions such as trying to get a suggestion for dinner at the front desk of the hotel, turned into a painstaking process involving four employees. While everything was a bit different in Japan, we never had these kind of issues. There are far less Westeners here in Guangzhou, that’s for sure. We’ve been getting a lot of stares that come, we think, mostly out of curiosity. Still, we’d like to learn the phrase “What are ya lookin’ at?!” or “Do I have something in my teeth?” So many stares. It was really an eye opening day.

Brooke is confused

Looking at a boat schedule we were given…not understanding a word

Besides the staring, the general behavior of the people here has a much different feel. Unlike the polite, patient crowds we saw throughout Japan, Guangzhou has been full of Shovey McShoversons. People will not hesitate to shoulder past you to get on a train or to get in front of you in line. This same sense of urgency can be seen in the drivers, too. When it comes to street traffic, our primary goal quickly became to avoid getting flattened by a speeding taxi or bus. The drivers and pedestrians in this town seemed to be locked in an epic city-wide game of chicken. It seems cars definitely have the right-of-way and we were doing some serious heads-up walking when we crossed the street.

Our other immediate impression of Guangzhou is how friggin’ inexpensive everything was. A full dinner ran us about $15, taxi rides came to around $3 and a subway ride was about 75 cents…for two people! We took advantage by taking the morning to pursue stores (they love their malls in Asia) on the Beijing Road Shopping district. Endless deals complimented endless shops. After walking the downtown streets, seeing the colors and sites and a really, really difficult experience attempting to by boat tickets, we needed a break. So, we went to the one place where we knew everyone in the room would speak English – our comfy hotel room. We grabbed some beers and toasted to humility, to hubris and to travel in general.

Lunch!

Lunch! Somewhat tasty and really, really cheap

Although there have been some challenges today, Guangzhou itself has been very easy to navigate and a breeze to get around. The modern subway runs quickly and cheaply with a lot of innovative, high-tech features. Some of the stations look like they haven’t been open a month and new lines are being added each year. In fact, there was construction everywhere. Cranes on the horizon as far as they eye could see. There is a splattering of high-rise construction around every corner. For every recently constructed high-rise, there was another one half-built. We read that in 2007, 25% of the world’s construction cranes were in China and that seems to still hold true in Guangzhou.

After the best beef and broccoli I’ve ever had, our day ended on a particular high note with a stellar night cruise down the Pearl River. A popular activity, river boats cruise up and down the Pearl River through the center of town. The smooth hour-long ride allows you to see the illuminating, dazzling lights from just about every building – new and old. Every structure from stadium, to bridge, to apartment complex gets in on the act. Most spectacular is the Guangzhou tower. So, yeah, it’s about the 5th tower we’ve seen since arriving in Asia, but it really is the best one we’ve seen yet. It was the highlight of our day and showcased Guangzhou’s most signature feature.

The Pearl RiverIt was important that we ended our day with the river cruise, because our general feeling for today was frustration. We wish we spoke even a little Cantonese, but we barely know how to say hello. Even at our lovely hotel, miscommunication abounds. With that, we’re taking our 36 hours in Guangzhou and heading out of town. We are amazed when we think that we still have SO much trip left! We have lots to look forward to. Including a bus ride to Hong Kong tomorrow. At least, we think we’re heading on a bus to Hong Kong tomorrow. With all of the language challenges we’ve had today, we’re never 100% sure on what we’re doing next!

-Phil

Categories: China, Destinations, Differences, Discounts, Hotels, Surprises, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Yokohama, Japan

Yokohoma!There is no doubt about it…we are definitely in a foreign country. Sure, in New Zealand there were cute little differences like saying “toilet” rather than “restroom,” but that was nothing compared to Japan. Okay, it’s true that Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC are almost inescapable, but otherwise the vast differences have quickly thrown us into sensory overload. It has been great, but very intimidating.

Ito's hideout

On the base of Camp Zama, Gaye showed us this: A secret (unused) bunker for the Japanese Emperor during World War II. When Americans claimed the based, this was found!

Today, we took care of a little bit of necessary business before really sinking our teeth into Japan. Gaye, my cousin who is the most gracious hostess ever, drove us around Sagamihara City and took us over to Camp Zama, the U.S. Army Base where she has taught for the last 25 years. Here, we visited the tourism office, stopped by the ATM and had a nice lunch by the golf course. There were far more Japanese working on the base than I expected, but overall US dollars could be used and in a lot of ways it did feel very American. We can understand why Gaye has chosen to stay here for most of her adult life–it is the perfect balance of living in a foreign country, but still having your own culture close by. However, this American culture stopped as soon as we said sayonara to the guard at the gate.

One of our biggest feats today was figuring out, at least a little bit, the train lines. Our pre-trip research led us to the JR pass – a train pass which allows us unlimited access to the national JR train line for seven days. This isn’t a subway, it is more like a combination of regional rail and Amtrak. The train line will get us around Tokyo and its suburbs, but also travels to all areas of Japan. Luckily, Gaye lives right next to the Sagamihara stop on JR Yokohama line. We decided to venture to Yokohama, a city of 3.5 million just south of Tokyo. Gaye walked us to the station and pointed us in the right direction, which actually turned out to be the wrong direction (to her credit, she usually uses a different train line–there are SO MANY trains here). Luckily, Phil and I checked the map, and even though most it is written in Japanese, the station names are also written in English and everything is well marked with arrows and time tables.

Donut Plant Tokyo

Amazingly, we never made it inside the Donut Plant in New York City, but to our shock we saw this store at the ShinYokohana Train Station!

Once on the train, it wasn’t much different from riding the train in New York–it is filled with people weary from a long day of work or tired out from the heat who just want to get where they are going. Except for us, of course. We were bright eyed and smiling, reading every sign we could to make sure we were headed in the right direction. The train moves fast, so catching the one word written in English on the sign was not as easy as we thought it would be. Luckily, we made it into Yokohama with no problems at all–we didn’t even have to ask for help!

Once off the train, we did what we do best–we wandered around looking for interesting things to see. It took us all of two minutes to happen across a large crowd of people gathered on steps watching a street performer. This wasn’t the same crappy dance group you see in the Times Square subway station who spends 15 minutes gathering a crowd to watch their performance but they never actually do anything. No, this guy was pure entertainment. He was cracking up the crowd, telling jokes, singing little bits–sure, we had no idea what he was saying, but we laughed when everyone else did and joined in clapping when it seemed appropriate. Adding onto his joke telling, he began juggling–of course. But then he lit the juggling sticks on fire, then he juggled fiery sticks while balancing on a rolling cylinder, then he spit fire! It was awesome! Being a part of this crowd of all Japanese people, and having no idea of the words but still getting the message just the same, was really neat.

Crazy Street Performer below Landmark TowerWe left the performer and wandered around Yokohama taking in the sights, the coolest of which was Yokohama Stadium. We know the Japanese love their baseball, and man was it obvious just walking by the stadium. A game had just begun and already the crowd was chanting, cheering and singing. The energy from the crowd inside was electrifying the air outside–it was almost contagious. As we walked around, we saw a big screen set up outside the stadium with tables, chairs and food vendors where people could sit and watch the game without having to buy a ticket and go in. The atmosphere was awesome, and got us even more excited for tomorrow when we get to have our experience at a Tokyo Yomiuri Giants baseball game at Tokyo Dome. We can’t wait to tell you about it!

For now, we go to bed with Japanese phrases swimming in our head, yen conversions fogging up our brains, and the question of how we can possibly retain all that we’ve learned confounding us.

-Brooke

Japanese Vending Machine

There are vending machines everywhere! For Cold Drinks, Hot Drinks and more. All sorts of unique goodies stocked inside

Categories: Destinations, Discounts, Diversions, Family, Japan, Self Guided Tours, Tokyo, Trains | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Thoughts on traveling in New Zealand so far

We wanted to quickly say that Brooke and I have been flattered and delighted by the number of views and comments we’ve received on the blog so far. We are really glad that people seem to be enjoying (or at least reading) our travel journal. As a reminder, if you’re interested in keeping up to speed (and don’t mind some more junk in your inbox) you can sign up to get an update via e-mail every time we update the blog which is about once a day. To do so, just click on the “follow this blog” link on the right hand side of the screen.

Baby lamb photographed from the side of the road!Our trek through New Zealand continued today as we’ve made our way to the southern tip of the North Island. Our spaceship is now docked in the capital city of Wellington. A day driving in rain ended with a stay overlooking the city and a warm bowl of soup and delicious pizza on Cuba Street in the heart of the city. Another day driving through rain and small towns on roads that you fear might turn to gravel made us twice as glad to arrive. We look forward to explore New Zealand’s most hyped city.

We touched down in New Zealand a week ago and now we’re getting the hang of adapting to the long-term travel lifestyle. Turns out that all I really need to start the day has been a hot shower with good water pressure. Success at at every stop so far. And all Brooke needs is just a solid cup of coffee somewhere along the way. We’ve also found that living in New York City for the last six years has prepared us well for this trip. Dealing with nighttime noise, small beds, smaller hotel rooms, navigating public transportation and even discussing living in NYC (a city that everyone knows and has a thought on) has all worked to our advantage. And, of course, I’ve been blessed with the perfect travel partner who is helping to make this trip amazing each day.

Over the past week, it’s been a blast to soak up all the small differences that we’ve found so far while traveling. I’m getting pretty quick at converting kilometers to miles, centigrade to farenheit and US dollars to New Zealand dollars, but still get thrown for a loop when I have to figure out how much $7.99 NZD per Kg of zucchini really is. There are lots of small but unique contrasts in language, social behavior, and more that we thought were worth sharing.

Coffee for a long drive to Wellington!The first lesson we learned is that coffee is a whole new ballgame here. While there are vibrant, independent coffee houses every two blocks in New Zealand, ordering a cup of black coffee will only reward you with a confused look from the barista. Thanks to our new friend Jason, we’ve learned that a “long black” is what we’re after. It is basically a shot of espresso topped off with steaming hot water. Delicious and strong but not cheap. The minimum we’ve paid for a solid cup of joe has been about $3.50. And there are never refills. American coffee may be living up to the cliché of being on par with mud in comparison, but at least you can get it by the gallon for a couple of of bucks at the local gas station.

Another thing we’ve noticed is that although everyone speaks English, we keep stumbling across some different words. In all public buildings, restrooms are just called the toilet. Which makes us feel relatively crass when we ask “Where is your toilet?” when at a restaurant. Sort of on par to “Point me to the crapper!” but it gets the job done. You “hire” a car instead of “rent.” On a menu, appetizers are called entrees. And entrees are called mains. When spoken aloud, websites such as http://www.Rugby.co.nz is referred to as “dub dub dub Rugby dot co dot en-zed”which is just fun.

Paying for purchases is also a bit different. Everyone takes credit card, but entering a pin number is much more common when you charge a purchase. Signing is decidedly against the norm and they check our signature against the signature on the card every single time. Since no one ever checked in the US, I would sometimes sign faux names like “Johnny Tellyawhattodo.” That won’t fly here.

Lastly, the people we’ve met so far are an incredibly friendly, well traveled bunch who are endlessly hospitable. It’s interesting to hear how they see America. It gives us some perspective on our own country. For example, we forget that, say, since Texas is almost nothing like Maine, 50 different states really does translate to 50 different mini-countries.

Overall, we are glad we started with New Zealand, because even though there are some small and interesting differences, we can generally clear up any confusion by asking a few questions. We are intimidated by our anticipation of how this will work in the next several countries we’ll be in (Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore) where English will be much harder to come by. I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

-Phil

Categories: Cell Phones, China, Discounts, Diversions, Health, Museums, New Zealand, Wardrobe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

International Teacher Identification Card

Some of you may remember AIESEC from when you were in college—this was the organization where all of your friends who love to drink would host (party with) the foreign students who were studying at your university.  They also went on a lot of awesome trips abroad—again, mostly as an excuse to drink beer from many different countries.  Lucky for us, not only does being a student garner these benefits, so does being a teacher.

Okay, so it isn’t quite the same as in college.  For our RTW trip, I have procured an International Teacher Identity Card (ITIC).  The ITIC the grown up version of the ISIC and the similar AIESEC .  In order to get this card, I had to go to STA Travel, prove that I am currently a full time teacher (I failed to tell them that I was quitting my job for my travels), and pay a measly $25.00.  After a couple of weeks, voila!  My card was in the mail.

Teacher Discount Card for World Travel!

Of course the important question is:  What is the point of getting the card?  Well, it actually offers a number of benefits:

  1. It is proof that I am a teacher and in many places around the world, they actually respect and revere this profession, therefore offering a wide array of discounts and opportunities.  Many museums and major tourist attractions offer educator discounts and there are even occasional discounts on transportation.  Since we’re traveling on a budget, we’ll take any discounts we can get!
  2. It can be used as a pre-paid MasterCard.  We aren’t planning on using it in this way because we have other ways of accessing our money. But we could load money onto this card and access it easily from any ATM or use it like a credit card.
  3. The ITIC offers a very small amount of travel insurance that comes along with having the card.  It is not our primary source for travel insurance, but it offers some nice supplementary coverage.
  4. It is yet another form of photo identification that could be used in place of something else.  For example, if we rent bikes in Copenhagen and have to leave ID behind to ensure we return the bicycles, we could leave this rather than our driver’s license or passport. The thought of leaving those makes me a bit nervous.

Visiting the classroom in RTWReally though, what I’m hoping this card will help me do is to talk my way into different schools around the world.  It will be proof that I am a teacher and make me seem like less of a weirdo when I go barging into some middle school in New Zealand asking if I can observe a class or talk to some of their teachers (after all, New Zealand is ranked #2 in the world for reading scores…I could learn so much).  I am so excited by the prospect of seeing other schools and meeting other educators.  We will be visiting my cousin Gaye, who has been teaching middle school in Japan for the past 30 years.  Her first day of school is while we are there. Sure, she teaches at an American Air Base, but still: how cool to see their beginning-of-the-year routines.  Hopefully my ITIC card will help me get my foot in the door!

-Brooke

Categories: Budget, Discounts, Doccuments, New Zealand, Packing, Teaching, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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