Author Archives: myfamilytravelsblog

Stone Town

Zanzibar City, the capital of Zanzibar, consists of the new area, simply called “the other side” and the old one: Stone Town. Stone Town was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000.

Forget New York, Stone Town is the true definition of a melting pot. The Persians were the first to establish a trade base here back in the 3rd century amidst the local Bantu people. The first mosque in the Southern Hemisphere was built by these traders right here.

Trade attracted merchants from India, Indonesia and China and the local culture incorporated these new elements. The Indian culture is evident in the exquisite wooden balconies of many buildings.

In the 1500s, the Portuguese took over control of the island but with a very hands-off approach to its administration by putting in place Arab sultans and giving them wide latitude. In 1631, the Sultan of Mombasa killed off all the European settlers after which act the Portuguese decided to bring in European rulers to Zanzibar. The people of Stone Town grew dissatisfied with this development and invited the Sultan of Oman to help them overthrow the Europeans. The Sultan gladly did this and kept power for himself of course. Stone Town came to be ruled by the Sultanate of Oman until the death of Said bin Sultan in 1856 which caused his two heirs to quarrel. Britain saw the opportunity and stepped in to settle the dispute by dividing the area to be ruled among the two sons: Majid then became the Sultan of Zanzibar while his brother Thuwaini became the Sultan of Oman.

Majid bin Sultan made Stone Town one of the wealthiest cities in East Africa by promoting the trade of, unfortunately, slaves. These slaves were “bought” from their villages in East Africa for almost nothing and employed in carting ivory into Stone Town. Once the ivory had been sold off, the slaves were next. It was a no-losses business model. Stone Town had become the epicenter of the slave trade.

Slaves were sent from Stone Town into all corners of the world: Arabia, Oman, Persia, as well as the new continent. Both the slaves’ and the traders’ cultures came to shape Stone Town’s culture and made some merchants very wealthy. At this time, slave traders were proud of their trade and built their houses to reflect this. Look closely at the edges of this intricately carved door, notice the chain links? That meant the owner of the house was a slave trader.

Tipu Tip was one of the (if not THE) richest such slave trader, although as you can read from this sign and observe from the covered edges of his door, his history has been cleaned a bit.

In 1842, the British decided to end the slave trade and applied pressure on the Sultan to do this. While the trade towards the East was diminished, the British found it almost impossible to stop the slave trade to the Americas as France, Spain and the United States continued to engage in it. In 1873, the British threatened the Sultan of Zanzibar with a blockade if he didn’t stop the trade in slaves to these nations finally forcing the slave market in Zanzibar to close down for good. The Cathedral was built on the very site of the former Slave Market with the altar incorporating the base of the whipping post.

Zanzibar became a British protectorate in 1890 and remained so until 1963. In 1964, Zanzibar and Tanganyika came together to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

Stone Town is rich in history and flavor. Unfortunately, they don’t have the means to invest in preserving it and most buildings seem to be crumbling. Houses in Stone Town were traditionally built from coral and this material does not weather well.

That white building in the background is “The Palace of Wonders” called thus because it was the first building in Stone Town to have electricity. It is the largest building here and one of their most important historical sites. It was built in 1883 by Sultan Barghash bin Said as a ceremonial palace and it is said that he kept wild animals chained in the front yard.

Sadly, while one can roam the front “yard”, the museum is permanently closed as Zanzibar simply doesn’t have the resources for the upkeep.

Even with the decay, Stone Town is a wondrous place full of twists and turns to lose oneself in.

It is very safe as far as crime goes, Muslim nations usually are. Traffic is a whole other story. Most of the streets in Stone Town are too narrow for cars and one must walk everywhere which is actually a delight. The locals though employ motorcycles to get around and you can imagine the fright one gets when turning around a corner puts you in the direct path of one of those speeding locals.

Freddie Mercury, lead singer for Queen, is the most famous son of Stone Town and our guide took us to see the school he attended

as well as the house he allegedly lived in. His fans might be disappointed as there really isn’t much to it but hey, taking a picture of his door is free.

On the day we were here, a street food fair was taking place on the square across from the Palace of Wonders. Families were out in droves and people were enjoying the pleasant weather.

Food smelled delicious and even though there was a cholera outbreak, we decided to risk it telling ourselves that no germ could survive frying.

The food was indeed delicious and no, we did not get sick. We only wish we had had more time to enjoy lovely Stone Town at leisure.

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We had arranged for a Spice Tour on our way back into Zanzibar City for our night flight. Our ride back seemed just as interesting as the tour itself but unfortunately our guide discouraged any stops along the way.

What is wrong with this picture? Zanzibar was under British “protection” from 1890 thru 1963.

Always from the vehicle, we got to see

Children during recess:

The young people wearing black & white are high-schoolers and the ones in blue & cream, middle-schoolers.

Mothers waiting for public transportation:

People doing their shopping:

People come from all over the countryside to shop at these roadside markets

and then head home.

Public Transportation, called “Daladala”, is a bit tight but efficient.

The guy riding in back collects the fare. Sometimes, the truck doesn’t even stop and it’s up to the passengers to catch it.

The Spice plantations of old have metamorphosed themselves into tourist destinations as Indonesia has surpassed Zanzibar in the spice trade. One of these plantations was our first stop. These were the quarters where slaves to work the plantations were kept.

These now house plantation workers and their families

but are in the process of being taken down, not because nicer houses will be built but rather because the plantations don’t have a need for workers anymore. These people will need to find something else to do and somewhere else to live.

Zanzibar Island lies just 46 miles away from mainland Tanzania and as such it was the perfect headquarters for explorers and traders in the 600s. Local Bantu people served as go-between with Persian, Arab, Indian and Chinese merchants. This trade brought spices such as cardamom

and nutmeg

from Indonesia; and black pepper from India.

Zanzibar’s fertile soil and mild weather were the perfect environment to grow these plants and thus spices quickly became a major export. Persians are believed to have been the first explorers to settle in Unguja (Zanzibar Island) but the Portuguese took over control in the 1500s. Exploration in the Americas was in full swing by then and this enabled the Portuguese to bring with them seeds from Mexico such as vanilla,


chili pepper,

and achiote (used in Tacos al Pastor, yummy!).

In 1698 the Sultan of Oman threw the Portuguese out and established trade in slaves and ivory, brought from the mainland; as well as clove, brought from Indonesia.

This made Stone Town (old Zanzibar City) one of the wealthiest cities in Africa. When the slave trade was abolished by the English, who had by then taken over control, in 1897 Zanzibar came to rely mainly on the clove trade for which they once were the world’s major producer. Clove was more precious than gold due to its medicinal properties as it was used to freshen the breath, relieve pain, particularly toothaches, and to conserve meats from spoiling. It is now also used in cuisines the world over. Zanzibar began to lose control over the clove trade just recently in the 1970s and hasn’t been able to recover from this economic downturn since.

Another ubiquitous fruit in the island is coconut. Since it grows everywhere without any human tending, it is common practice for young people on their way home from school to climb a palm tree for a quick snack as our guide demonstrated.

Our tour ended at the gift shop (of course) where we bought some spices to bring home.Somehow our dishes don’t come out tasting as good as the ones we had in Zanzibar, may be that’s a sign for us to go back?

We continued on our way to Zanzibar City and begged our guide to let us stop at the market.It would seem that all those trinkets we simply throw away somehow make their way to this place.

We wandered into the market where I was struck by how merchants arrange their wares for sale; for an onlooker with a bit of OCD, this was pretty neat. The stench was powerful

and locals made it clear that they didn’t approve of us being here so we made our way out and continued on to Stone Town.



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Paradise Found…Maybe

We had decided to end our African tour enjoying the Spice Islands. Zanzibar is made up of several islands, the largest of which are Unguja (commonly referred to as Zanzibar Island) and Pemba. Zanzibar belongs to Tanzania but is clearly proud of its independent history. Swahili is spoken here and although we didn’t have time to learn much, “Jambo” (hello) and “Asante Sana” (thank you very much) were easy enough for us. Everyone here is so warm and easygoing, it was a delight to visit.

The capital of Zanzibar is named, appropriately enough, Zanzibar City. We arrived late that night and didn’t get to see much of it. The hotel we stayed in for the night was beautiful and when we had this view in the morning from the restaurant while having breakfast,

we were saddened at not having booked at least one more night here. Unless your flight gets in early in the morning, we do recommend staying two nights in Zanzibar City in order to enjoy it. Zanzibar is a mainly Muslim country and thus women cover most of their bodies even while taking a stroll on the beach.p1200026

As soon as we were done with breakfast, our guide carted us off to the northernmost tip of the Island where we were booked to stay at “La Gemma Dell’est”, which translates to Jewel of the East. We soon learned why. It took our breath away!

This all-inclusive resort caters mainly to Middle-Eastern tourists. We met tons of Israelis although there were a few Italians thrown in for good measure. The all-you-can-eat meals were fantastic and having a waiter bring drinks made from hibiscus and lime to you while lying by the pool is heavenly. The resort brings in different acts to perform nightly and these can be enjoyed at the “Sunset Lounge” while listening to the waves lap calmly underfoot.

Zanzibar has the cutest crabs: white and very shy.p1200126

They didn’t even try to pinch us when we grabbed them.p1200124

It also has gorgeous, and humongous, starfish but you won’t get to see them because…I lost all my pictures! It happens. Not to worry though, Fernando’s survived. The sand is soft and the water clear and calm. On our second day here we were talked into taking a snorkeling tour over the coral reefs by one of the many peddlers walking the beach. While it might get tiring to have to say “Asante, no” over and over again to the many people trying to sell their wares, they are only trying to make a living and it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of enjoying their beautiful beaches. Who can be unhappy here?

We took off early the next morning in order to beat the “rush” of all the other visitors to the reef. It was only a short ride in a small boat to a secluded area between our resort and Tumbatu Island right across. To my untrained eyes, the coral seemed a bit run down but fish were plentiful. If you go snorkeling here, make sure to bring some bananas with you. Turns out Zebra fish LOVE bananas!


As beautiful as this all looks though, it wasn’t enjoyable due to some small and almost invisible beings. Can you spot the one lurking in the video? When at first I began to feel tiny electrical discharges on my arms, I convinced myself that I was imagining it. The guys were happily swimming around so it had to be me, I thought. When one of those stings got me right across my lips, the pain literally took my breath away. I had had enough; it forced me out of the water and back onto the boat.  Soon enough the guys got stung too many times as well and also decided to bail.

Our guides then took us to a deserted and beautiful beach for lunch where Alejandro got buried so deeply in the sand, he had a hard time leaving when it was time.

All in all, Zanzibar Island was beautiful: water is clean, sand is soft, food is delicious, people are nice but…I’d rather go to Mexico for beaches. What can I say? I am a beach snob. Haven’t been everywhere yet but as of today, I still prefer Mexican beaches to any others I’ve been to, although Zanzibar is an incredibly close second on my list.

We’ve got Thailand on our radar though and I’ve been told I will change my mind. We will just have to wait and see.

We enjoyed a beautiful couple of days here but now it was time to get going again to our next and last stop before heading home: The Spice Plantations and Stone Town – a World Heritage Site.


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A Ugandan Village

We spent our mornings in Bohoma trekking for Gorillas and our afternoons visiting the village and its surroundings. We were discouraged from setting out on our own by our hosts at the lodge and thus we had not only a guide but an armed guard accompany us on our afternoons. When we asked the reasoning for the guard, we were told he was there to keep the village children from overwhelming us. With an AK-47. That answer didn’t make us feel any safer as we couldn’t help but think that we didn’t need protecting from these young people.


It was difficult to get to the bottom of this. We were told over and over that the village was safe, no one would try to hurt us but then we were not allowed to leave the lodge without the guard. Puzzling.

In the village, cattle


share the space with people


and tiny shops are set up along the one dirt road. Signs advertising accommodations were plentiful. It seemed to us that there were more “lodges” than tourists, in fact the only other foreigners we ran into were those on our Gorilla treks.

Our guide took us to visit a “Pygmy village” in the forest.


It’s not real though but only a reenactment of what one used to be.


The Pygmy people used to live on the mountain, harvesting its resources, grazing their cattle and burning down patches of land to cultivate on. Once the area was designated protected for indigenous species, the Pygmy, and their livestock, were kicked out and forbidden to enter their ancestral lands. We were told by our guide that the government gave the Pygmy people plots of land to cultivate and that it provides them with a small stipend to make up for their loss. Judging from the terrible poverty they obviously live in, it didn’t ring true.


In this pretend village, the Pygmy showed us how they built tree houses where the children would be kept while the adults went hunting. One adult, armed with a bow and arrow, would stay behind to protect the children from harm.


The Pygmy people danced their traditional dance for us


and showed us how they make fire by rubbing sticks.


We were shown their tiny houses


and even the “love hut” where newlyweds would stay for a month once married before integrating into the community. We were later told by fellow travelers that we got the sanitized version of the tour, maybe due to the boys being with us, while they got the fully violent “newlywed reenactment”. From their description, we don’t think we missed anything worth complaining about.

Back in the village, people paid us no mind as they went about their day. Makeshift broilers roast snacks for sale outside homes (our guide strongly advised us not to sample them)


and children, on their way home from school, play futbol (soccer for y’all) with a coconut ball.


The mountains in the area are covered by fields of tea plants.


Tea production is what keeps this area afloat. While there are some coffee trees around


and coffee is Uganda’s primary crop export, our guide explained that it is not as immediately economically profitable as tea. Coffee trees take a few years to yield coffee beans and once harvested are done for; while tea just keeps on growing requiring very little care in these wet and high plains. Everywhere we looked, tea shrubs abounded.


The branches with three leaves on them are harvested by hand before they get too old and brought to tents where they are inspected and weighed entitling their owners to a ticket which they will then cash in at the factory.


These tea leaf sacks are then taken to a processing plant. There are two tea processing factories in the area, one privately owned and the other communal: the Kayonza Tea Factory.


The independent growers in the area all have shares in this communal plant which is doing so well for them that they even were awarded a climate change prize last year for their conservation efforts.

Villagers also complement their meals and income by processing bananas in every possible way imaginable.


They make banana liquor by burying the  green bananas in the soil under banana leaves and setting fire to them.


Once fermented, the bananas are dug up and placed in these hollow trunks where they will be squished by the man of the house (and only the man of the house) stomping them with his bare feet.


This is actually a dangerous job as the banana squish gets slippery and the man must hang on from ropes tied to the rickety roof of the hut to finish his work. Disregarding the process by which the liquor is done, it’s still nasty stuff and we wouldn’t recommend it. We also tried some banana juice and banana milk. Again, just don’t. What ever happened to simply eating a banana the way nature intended?


The village has one small clinic which is supported by contributions from the lodge we stayed in. Commonly though, villagers visit the traditional healer when they feel sick. He invited us into his “clinic”.


He showed us the plants he uses, all of which grow on the mountainside, to heal the most common complaints such as colds and stomachaches. Differently from the traditional healer in South Africa, he doesn’t use any divination aides to guess at what illness his clients might have but rather uses his vast experience to help them.


The healer learned his wisdom from his grandfather and is now passing it on to his grandson but I would say time is probably not on his side.


On our walk back from the healer, we ran into two young men carving gorilla souvenirs.


in a small hut.


The end result is fantastic.


On our last afternoon, we begged to be allowed to go for a walk on our own. The area is just so beautiful that having a gun-wielding guard takes something away from it even if he stays a couple steps behind. Our hosts reluctantly agreed.



We came upon a small field of butterflies


upside down birds


and even a few monkeys.



We saw a young man herding cattle on the mountainside, just like in Iceland!



All sorts of flowers


even poisonous ones, good thing we had been warned beforehand.


Young schoolboys on a break play futbol (can you make out the flip-flop goal posts behind the goalkeeper?)


while others look on.


Wasp nests,


blue-headed lizards,


and beautiful cows.


Most prevalent of all were the tea fields.


Our hosts seemed very relieved when we got back to the lodge safely and quickly carted us away to visit the local orphanage. More than an orphanage, this is a boarding school, Bwindi Watoto School, where most of the boarders have either lost one or both parents, a majority of them to AIDS. The school is privately run, doesn’t receive any government funding and thus survives on children being sponsored for their time at school by donors. The children perform a show every afternoon for the tourists in order to garner donations. Even though this is similar to what happened during our visit to the school in South Africa it had a very different feel, maybe because class was not interrupted for our visit but rather the afternoon show is a running event? The children seemed happy singing, dancing and playing with each other.


Education is a difficult problem here. Primary education is free by law to all children in Uganda. Worthy goal but elusive in implementation as there are simply not enough resources to go around for all the children needing schooling. Rural areas, like Bohoma, are even more likely to lack the resources to educate their children. There are at least three private boarding schools operating in the area and they all subsist on donations.


Our time in Uganda was fantastic although we feel we failed to truly understand the social dynamics going on here. As our driver pointed out, Uganda is a country rich in natural resources but its people are so terribly poor. He blamed it on a lack of democratic governance. As he explained it, to be able to build a business in Uganda, a person must have the approval of the president and only his close allies get such approvals. President Museveni has been in power for 30 years now and while his cronies keep getting richer, the rest of the Ugandan people still live in squalor. We can only hope that things will peacefully change for the very young, more than half the population is under 20 years old, people of Uganda in the near future. We would love to be back one day.


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Bwindi Impenetrable Park was established in 1991 and is managed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority which is tasked with the conservation of the area. The park is home to about 340 critically endangered Eastern Mountain Gorillas, almost half the world’s population.

In order to visit the gorillas, one must buy a very expensive ($600USD) trekking permit from the UWA months in advance. The permit is good only for the date, gate, and person indicated on it, which means that if anything in your plans changes, you’re out of luck. Furthermore, no one feeling ill or visibly sick will be given entry either, permit notwithstanding. For these reasons, spending this huge amount of money gave us great pause but we took the plunge and bought permits for one day. At the time, our agent strongly suggested that we buy permits for two days but we refused. Her rationale was that if we didn’t get to see the gorillas one day, we had better chances of seeing them with two treks. For anyone thinking of buying permits, that reason is nonsense: you will see the gorillas almost guaranteed. We didn’t know that at the time of course and when we changed our minds a few days later, permits for the area were all gone! Our agent managed to get us permits to a different area of the park from where we were staying which meant a very early (4:30am) wake up and over two hour drive to get there but we took them anyway. We are not at all sorry we did and actually think it worked even better for us this way.

For our first (far away) trek into the Ruhija area, the wonderful people tending our lodge woke up early to outfit us with waterproof covers for our pants, walking sticks and boxed breakfast and lunch. Upon arriving at the meeting area, we were divided into groups of eight. Three gorilla families here are habituated to humans and thus able to be visited. Each group of 8 people visits one gorilla family for one hour of the day, that’s all that is permitted. Two trackers follow each of these three gorilla families all day, every day, from when they wake up to when they bed for the night. The trackers make a note of where the gorillas bedded down before leaving them for the night and must get back to this place before the gorillas begin their next day in order to not lose them. As the group of people is about to set out on their trek, the guide radios the trackers for their location and then guides the group to that place. This method makes seeing the gorillas an almost certainty. The group is also accompanied by an armed guard since in 1999, Congolese guerrilla fighters abducted a tourist group, killing with machetes and clubs over half of them before releasing the others. The armed guard is really just for show I think since he’s only one person, but better not to dwell on these facts as you’re about to set out.

Before starting on your trek, you are presented with the choice of hiring a porter to carry your stuff for you. We were carrying so much water (heavy packs) that they did come in handy but if you don’t carry as much, a porter isn’t really necessary. Most of the people in our group didn’t hire any. There is another way of looking at this though: jobs are hard to come by in this area of the country. Some of these porters walk a couple of hours every morning to be there when the tourist groups arrive. Those that are not hired are dismissed for the day as there will be no other tourists; dismissed without work. Paying for a porter is providing a source of income for that person if nothing else. Plus they are super nice and helpful when pulling an out-of-breath tourist up a mountain. However, once close to the gorilla family, porters must stay behind and allow for the group of tourists to continue the trek on their own so it happens that the toughest part of the hike is done without their help.

It is not called the Impenetrable Forest for nothing.

Walking in here was exhausting!

This might be the toughest hiking we’ve ever done. It is oppressively humid even though we visited during the “dry” season and the average elevation is over 6,000ft which makes it hard to breathe. There are no paths as the group is simply advancing toward the gorilla family wherever they might be. The advice is to bring a waterproof jacket (leave it), good walking shoes (make that heavy duty boots), gloves (absolute MUST), and 3 liters of water per person (half a liter is more than enough). The hardest part of the trek is that the ground isn’t really there. The ground seems solid until you step on it and fall thru to a stream below which you hadn’t even heard, that’s how thick the cover is. The trees have spikes, thorns would be too gentle a word, so grabbing hold is inadvisable. I literally clawed my way up and probably slowed our group down considerably

but we were well rewarded as suddenly there we were, right next to the family.

female gorilla just chilling

Silverback Gorilla, head of this family


yawns are contagious

Can you believe that these beautiful creatures have been killed to make their hands into ashtrays? Don’t you just want to reach out and touch it?

I do, but we didn’t. That would have been completely inadvisable, not to mention against the rules. Visitors are supposed to stay 7ft away from the gorillas at all times. That’s a truly difficult rule to follow though as finding a solid place to stand is almost impossible. The gorillas take up the best spots! Sometimes being able to stay put means being quite close to them. Plus they move around with no regard to the rule. The distance is meant to provide a safety zone for the gorillas. Since we share over 97% of their DNA, that makes them vulnerable to human diseases; particularly airborne ones, which is the reason for denying entry to ill persons. It has been determined that 20% of natural gorilla deaths which have occurred in the area are due to illnesses transmitted to them by humans. While tourists such as ourselves bring a much needed source of income for the villagers, we also bring diseases from all over the world which threaten their very livelihood from said tourism. The best we can do is abide by our guide’s directions.

Male young gorillas are called Blackbacks. This guy will become a Silverback soon and he will either have to challenge the patriarch of the family or most likely, leave in search of his own family.

Blackback gorilla

The Ruhija trek was very difficult and getting good pictures of the gorillas almost impossible with all the vegetation in the way.  It was so thick that we didn’t even notice the gorillas trekking alongside at times:

What our feet looked like after the trek.

The boys loved this trek as it was a rugged adventure, just up their ally. I loved it too but had to take a two hour nap once back at the lodge. It certainly was beautiful and as hard as it was, I would gladly do it again.

Our next morning, we didn’t have to set out as early and were able to have a good breakfast at the lodge since the Buhoma area was right next door. Once again, we hired a porter mainly to help me out. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s trek and seriously doubting my ability to follow the group on this second day. I was thoroughly surprised when this day’s trek was the easiest walk we’ve ever done! Turned out that this gorilla family had made their nests the night before quite close to the park’s entrance and we only had to jump over a small stream to get to them. When we arrived they were just lazying about in their nests, not ready to come down just yet.

Our guide instructed us to stand under the trees and wait for the gorillas to come down. After about half an hour of standing around, craning our necks out to look at the gorillas overhead, I asked the guide if it wouldn’t be better to stand aside as it seemed to me that we were the obstacle impeding the gorillas from coming down.

He told me to stay exactly where I was. I think he did it on purpose. Seconds later, I wondered how the rain could penetrate such a thick canopy until I realized that was no rain: I was being peed on by a gorilla! I chose to take it as a lucky omen. As soon as the shower stopped, they began descending.

Some stopped to pose for pictures. Isn’t he handsome?

Once they were all on the ground, they began walking toward the stream. The Silverback brought up the rear of the column as if to protect his family from this group of hairless paparazzi.

Once at the stream, they settled down to groom each other.

While the adults looked at us with boredom, the babies were very curious.

This guy is only weeks old but with a head of hair to envy.

There was a sense of peace and contentment in the group. The kids played and climbed then upon falling, would run back to their moms for comfort, which these ladies never failed to provide.

Can you feel the love in that gaze?

Everything happens under the watchful eye of the big guy.

Our group of tourists was so affected by the privilege of sharing the gorilla’s day that there were some tears shed and the boys declared that they will never again visit a zoo. While the benefits of a good zoo can be debated, one thing is an absolute certainty: free animals exude a sense of happiness that is not present in caged ones.

Going on two gorilla treks only intensified our desire to be able to enjoy such privilege again some day. May it be so!

Categories: Africa, Uganda, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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