A Jubilant Love Affair – Con Amor Granada

“This is the dream of all the world. The dream is to live in Granada. You know, work in the morning, have a one hour nap in the afternoon and at night go out and have that life; eat tapas and drink red wine and be in a beautiful place”.

Sophia – “Hold my hand and I will show you a beautiful place.”

Anthony Bourdair once said, “This is the dream of all the world. The dream is to live in Granada. You know, work in the morning, have a one hour nap in the afternoon and at night go out and have that life; eat tapas and drink red wine and be in a beautiful place”.

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Copyrights: @whereizmyboardingpass

This is what these narrow bustling streets of the little Spanish town echoed. With an exquisite history of the Nasrid Dynasty and the spectacular Moorish architecture, one cannot help but imagine what the kings and the queens would have felt walking through the passages of the ‘Palacios Nazaries’ to the gorgeous lush green gardens of the Alhambra. There is so much authenticity in the palaces and the monuments of this town, that one cannot miss being in – as described by Anthony – a beautiful place. Although, to me Granada will always be a conflate of ancient authenticity and modern day lifestyle.

I had a friend Ross, back in England who once happened to mention that his grandparents lived in Spain. He knew my genre of travel and suggested I make sure to visit this town. When I asked him to describe this place to me, he said “Granada is as beautiful as the sky midst the setting sun; as mellifluous as the Spanish lady’s footsteps; as rustic as the falling autumn leaves and as genial as a small child playing across the street”.

A wandering soul like mine couldn’t resist those words and I instantly found myself booking an apartment for a 3 day trip in the town of Granada. I looked through pictures of the place over the internet but what I witnessed was so much more abundant than what was on the internet. I was in the town where once lived the Romans and the Nasrid’s. While the Romans brought in early architecture and culture to Spain, the Moors and the Nasrid’s brought in royalty and Islamic décor during the later history of the town. I was walking the narrow streets of Granada where there existed abundant history and war and blood and lust. Here, in this ancient southern Spanish town, I could be anyone, do anything. I felt like a free bird trying to find a new home away from home.

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And so, one fine summer morning of July, I decided to be a bird. I was the crimson rosella parrot. That morning as I stepped out of my apartment in the city center, I let my predominantly red-blue feathers flip-flap back and forth as I flew myself swiftly across the charm filled atmosphere of the town. I let the warm summer air kiss my tinted lips and the bright sun twinkle in my eye.

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In no time I was at the Palace of Alhambra, getting lost in the mysterious walled gardens hidden from prying eyes, walking through the Arab baths, wondering what all the intricate designs in the Alhambra’s salons and courtyard’s really signified and what all those words engraved and carved on the walls and ceilings of the palace really try to convey.

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Post a well exercised morning, as the sun reached the midpoint in the sky, I was roaming the streets of Granada, glancing through the windows of old vintage shops and passing by groups of people eating tapas and drinking chilled beer. It was almost 4 by the time I rested my tired legs in a café and ordered myself a tall glass of cold coffee sided by a tomato-mozzarella sandwich. Every restaurant in here had tiny water sprinklers suspended from the roofs and umbrellas which really help fight the scorching heat during peak summer days.

Post a light lunch I was out again, doing my thing, being myself, the free-spirit person I am, engaging myself in the hustle-bustle of the town life as I encountered a square seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The locals were building something that looked like a stage. The stage lay in a bucolic setting of tiny cottages and had a rustic charm to it.

As I looked around, I saw people whispering among themselves and talking about what was about to come up. I saw tourists trying to hold maps, shutterbugs not leaving their cameras alone and this one tall petite woman in a long cotton gown with a sling bag. Her round glasses were raised above her forehead and she was busy making some notes and clicking pictures of the whole set-up.

I landed myself next to the young lady, maybe about 24-26 years in age. She was preoccupied with her camera, sitting over the stairs of the square. I sat by her and introduced myself, hoping she spoke English. I asked her in Spanish, ‘tu hablas ingles?’ (You speak English?) immediately replying ‘no hablo Español mucho’ (I don’t speak much Spanish). She looked at me with a gentle welcoming smile and started talking to me in English. Her English had a Spanish lilt to it, and I knew she was a local.DSC_0747

After a brief introduction she told me the whole set up is for a series of tap dance performances lined up by the locals. She gave a brief introduction of what the traditional dance form of Spain was and how culturally centered the people of this country are when it comes to learning ancient art forms. Flamenco is a passionate seductive dance form in a mysterious culture dated almost over 500 years ago. This dance form is colored in passion, dance, drama, story and romance. Women were dressed in colorful gypsy style dresses, silk shawls and hand painted fans in an array of dazzling designs. Some women were also dressed in capes and corsets in red, black and white while men were covered in red and black tuxedos tightly wrapped around their waists. There were men playing live music by clapping their hands and tapping their feet over the strong wooden flooring. The old men, with faces scorched and cracked like the bark of an olive tree, their hands swaying, making movements that could describe a saga by themselves and the courting couples dancing the most dramatic sevillanas, a symbol of life in this wonderful southern town of Granada. Their bodies moved in Spanish lilt while their feet tapped the wooden flooring making hard-hitting sounds to the ears. The expressions on their faces spoke a language that broke all linguistic barriers among all us variant travelers gathered in that little square from different corners of the world.

Being a dancer and culture enthusiast myself, I was left startled in the brilliance of the Tablao Flamenco. This dance form was theater in itself.

It took me a few moments to gather my wings back up and stand on my feet to wave in the flow of the evening. As I turned to leave, I thanked Sophia for the time spent together. It was almost 9 pm and my stomach had started to growl. I was starting to get hungry. Sophia called out for me and asked if I would like to have light dinner somewhere around. A little part of me was relentless but I gave in when she said she knew a great coffee shop around the city center where we could have a quite conversation over some neat Tapas and hot chocolate. I informed her that I was a vegetarian and she surprised me when she said she was vegan herself.

 

 

Image Credit: Vagabond
Image credits: Vagabond

We started walking through the dark narrow lanes lit with hundreds of fairy lights, some shaped in butterflies, some others in net shaped candles while some were painted in the colours of rainbow. A little part in me couldn’t believe these were the same streets I walked through all morning. They were much livelier, filled with people playing music and women dancing to it. It looked like a mini carnival. I lost count of the number of restaurants we crossed, but I cannot forget how crowded each restaurant was even on a weekday. There were restaurants with females dancers swaying around, belly dancing in their outfits and serving food from one table to another. There were belly dancers on the ends of every street. There were people chatting loudly in a language that made no sense to me. And yet, there I was, slurping up every step of this town, like freshly squeezed strawberry juice.

In between all my momentary observations, Sophia and I exchanged details of our respective countries. She asked me how I got here and where I was headed to after. She helped me with things I could do in Seville and Madrid. In about 20 minutes we reached Plaza de los Girones. The café where we ate was a cosy little setting filled with artistic pleasures. Restaurante Hicuri Art Vegan had warm interiors and was filled with walls painted in different colors. There was so much vivid art and graffiti on every wall in so many mixed colors. Sophia knew the staff since she was a regular here. She mentioned this place was ranked highest and one of the best vegan/vegetarian cafes in town. We sat by the corner resting upon a bright yellow wall. I am a foodie at heart and always in for trying new dishes and so I insisted she order the food. She ordered creamed vegetable soup followed by a main dish (which I can’t remember. Sob!). I insisted on bunking hot chocolate and sipping on some traditional wine. The wine selection at the restaurant was fairly small but justly so, they honed in for perfect selections including some organic options. We built conversation as we ate and I learned how similar we were in terms of our perspectives on life and travel. She was a photographer and aimed to be a fulltime traveller. And I could see her going a long way with this by the glitter in her eyes every time she spoke about a new city or a new country on her bucket list. I introduced India to her in a very authentic way and gave her a list of places she should go backpacking around the country.

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Image Credits: Vagabond

As the sky turned from purple to deep blue to coal black, what started as a fun filled conversation, turned into a beautiful unintended intellectual conversation. We shared stories from our past. We spoke about our families and friends, about what life meant to each of us and what the purpose of love really is. I told her how different the concept of marriage in India is and that back home my family was looking out for me to settle. That moment Sophia told me something which I will never be able to forget all my life. She said, “Sakshi, before you find someone, make sure to find yourself. Or else, you will break all the hearts in the process.” Her words moved something in me. I knew what she meant and I connected to her words so well. For a moment I could literally visualize those words, the alphabets from her statement move around me. In that moment I understood the importance of perspective.

What I thought would last a small talk, extended to a late night dinner at a random art café with a glass of organic wine and long endless conversations. It’s been a year and a half since that day, and I still haven’t been able to forget that serendipitous evening in Granada. As the stars took over the sky and formed a blanket over us, I knew Granada was magic in some little way.

And before the night ended, I went back to that little square, sat on the stairs and lay on the tiled floor, staring up at the sky, trying to locate the stars and breathing in the musical air one last time before I headed to my apartment. Once in my apartment I changed into a pair of shorts and made myself a hot cup of coffee. Sitting on the edge of my balcony, I looked down at the empty streets and wondered if this is what ‘home-away-from-home’ really meant. That night before I cradled myself to sleep, I wrote a little about this beautiful town that I’d like to mention here:

 

A jubilant love affair – con amor Granada

 

When you shed your skin and take another form

You know you might see yet another storm.

Or you might just come across a calm ocean

Stretching its arms ahead of time’s notion.

You could either crib to feel out of place

Or simply relish the sweet escape.

Into a town so beautiful where the Alhambra stands

Looks like a musical and welcomes you with open hands.

Where the sun sets in pink and the night turns purple

Where your heart beats in sync and your soul feels coral.

Where the streets stay awake with all the hustle

And its people eat pray love with a whole lot of bustle.

I knew I found me, a bit of myself here

I know I will come back, with another story to share.

And as I finish my cuppa, breathing reliance

I can’t help but brood, about the sweet dalliance.

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Vashisht – Myths from the Himalayas

A large of travel in India holds massive amount of myths and historical significance. I rode from Manali to small lush green village and unraveled some fascinating stories from the era of Mahabharata. Read on to know more…

Anyone fascinated by the ancient stories of Mahabharata and Ramayana will come to believe that a large part of travel in India has back stories and myths that define the current day destinations. Are you the kind of traveler who loves to learn the historical significance of a certain destination? Are you the kind that loves to go down to the deep roots of reasoning? Are you the one to question and give deeper meanings to your travels?

If you are, then you and I are going to have fun connecting historical dots. Read on to find more!

We reached Vashisht on rented bikes. A quick flashback to a lovely (pretty bumpy) bike ride from the edge of old manali to Vashisht all the way to Solang valley and back! The sheer beauty of lush mountains and roads knotted up in their own twisted tales, a bunch of girls on three bikes pretty defines ‘BOSS GIRLS’!

In the month of July, a bunch of us girls traveled all the way from the south of India to Himachal for a trek toward the Hampta pass, crossing valleys and mountains between Manali and Spiti. With a stop over in Manali for 3 days, we decided to rent bikes and ride around Manali and a few villages. I have been to Manali three times before, but this is the one I am never going to forget. The sheer presence of mind while riding midst these lush mountains and meeting the cold breeze in the air at higher altitudes while swirling from one turn to another, I realized that happiness is just around the corner (of the mountains, duh!).

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In conversation with them about the history of Vashisht ©whereizmyboardingpass

Our very first stop was at this quintessential little village at the banks of river Beas called Vashisht. Being more like a subtle green patch, this village was named after Rishi Vashisht, one of the seven sages (saptarishis) in Hinduism. The story of Vashisht trails all the way back to the era of Mahabharata. Even the river Beas, was originally called vipasha which means ‘freedom from bondage’. All across the books of Ramayana and Mahabharata, the conflict between the two greatest rishis of the time – Rishi Vashisht and Vishvamithra, has been a highlight. There have been various violent encounters captured in the respective books between them. Myths say that, Rishi Vashisht attempted to commit suicide in this river after he gained information that Vishvamithra (warrior son of Gadhi) killed his children. In the attempt to commit suicide, the river refused to drown Rishi Vashisht therefore creating a hundred shallow channels. And that’s how the name Vipasha – present day Beas. After this event, Rishi Vashisht started afresh. This temple is almost over 4000 years old. Looking closely into the architecture of this temple, you will see the intricate details and carvings on its wooden walls that speak of an unread story altogether.

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Vashisht Temple, Himachal Pradesh ©whereizmyboardingpass

We reached Vashisht in about 20 minutes from one edge of old Manali. This village is filled with rich culture, traditions and lots of tiny colorful cafes. It remains pretty crowded by tourists from around world during peak seasons. From foreign travelers to traditional architecture, German bakeries to Instagram worthy sit down cafes with live music, from cows to deer’s to nilgai’s, this was one stop on my bike-day excursion around Manali that I will never forget. Such is the photographic beauty of this village and the path that leads to it.

If you are in Manali, do give this little place a quick visit. It won’t take you more than 45 minutes by walk or even a short drive up through the rickshaws.

Got another historical significance for this village or hill station? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

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Zermatt – unending mountain romance

And then as we entered Zermatt our hearts pounded in happiness as we witnessed the mountains in the brochures walk out of the pages and stand in front of us, all tall and exquisite, coming to life all at once.

And then as we entered Zermatt our hearts pounded in happiness as we witnessed the mountains in the brochures walk out of the pages and stand in front of us, all tall and exquisite, coming to life all at once.

With the majestic Matterhorn shining in white and the hypnotic beauty of the village below, all our grievances, all our tiredness came to rest. Kids gluing their faces to the tall windows of the golden express, folks running through camera specifications to capture what were at an eyes distance and the silver heads blankly gazing at the tantalizing sight of snow taking natural forms in pure bliss, Zermatt was like walking into a real life fairy-tale.

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Located in the southern part of Switzerland, in the district of Visp, this German speaking village is nothing less than an alluring beauty to both mind and vision. Not a very commercial destination for tourists around the world (especially Indians), we were a family of four, and happened to visit this quintessential village on our way from Interlaken to Geneva. A two day stay in this beauty was all the rest we needed after all the thrill we experienced at Mt. Titlis and the Jungfrau Joch.

This car free village offers some of the best views of the high snow clad mountains of Switzerland right from the comfort of your bed. Just imagine waking up to fresh dew in the air, opening your eyes to shining white snow mountains and if your stars are shining in luck, then some fresh snowfall too. Offering non-stop mountain romance for all 365 days, this village has a population of less than 6000 inhabitants. Shops and boutiques shut at 5 pm and restaurants usually do not have more than three people working. The one thing I learnt from the people of Zermatt was to multitask. Hotels where the receptionist was also the chef and the house-lady, cafes where a man in his early forties was the owner and the gardener and the waiter and a lot more.

Zermatt lies under the exhilarating Matterhorn peak, which is where it gets its tag as a ski resort. Walking across the tiny bridges and into the narrow wavy lanes in this village, you will find some classy boutique stores and delicate cafes serving some of the best hot chocolate in the world. Also a paradise for stationary lovers (I am one, myself) Zermatt is filled with some insanely intricate stationary shops, offering some adorable range of paper crafts, books and journals.

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Image from : www.fuchs-zermatt.ch

My personal favorite experience in the village was my encounter with a local baker at a small German café. I was out there looking for a vegetarian cake to celebrate the eve of my parents 25th anniversary. I found myself running from café to café, bakery to bakery, just more saddened with failure to gather a vegetarian cake. One last bakery at the corner of Kirchstrasse street, had a kind old lady who cared enough to listen to my story and understood my absolute urge to find an egg less cake in the eleventh hour, offered to bake an egg less cake for my parents. I still cannot thank her enough for going out of her way to bake a cake for us. That was when I understood; people always want to help you, no matter where you go or who you are.

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Zermatt gave me a whole bunch of memory lanes, rich culture, interesting food and enchanting snow loaded mountains. As extraordinary as every other city in Switzerland gets, Zermatt is one of the closest to my hearts. Sure, there isn’t much to do in the village, but just the thought of zero pollution, zero vehicles, zero traffic, happy faces and a load full of snow, is like living in a world before the Pandora’s Box!

 

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MIND THE GAP!

“Please mind the gap between the train and the station. This is Hounslow Central. The next station is Hounslow East. This is the Piccadilly line service to Cockfosters.”

“Please mind the gap between the train and the station. This is Hounslow Central. The next station is Hounslow East. This is the Piccadilly line service to Cockfosters.”

It was 5 degrees, 8 pm and the month of December when I got off at Hounslow – dark and quite. I pushed off the underground carrying my suitcase and a backpack and took off to the street. I knew no body, saw barely any people, barely any shops and with google maps found a hotel and checked myself in for 2 nights. I was a student back then and was on budget travel. It was also the first time I was travelling alone to London. I have been here before, with a few friends, but this time it was different. I was more responsible, more self-aware, and more alert to my surroundings. As I entered Days Hotel, I saw a big noisy gang of old men with friendly smiles and liquor spread across their tables. It seemed like they were celebrating something. I didn’t ask. I walked up to my room – a comfortable king size bed with a coffee maker on the bed side. Placing my luggage on the holders, I walked to the wall length window and peeked outside just to find a huge bunch of young boys and girls (probably undergraduates) walking to the train station. I was sure they were all heading for a party at the M.O.S (had overheard a chap)! I cozied up into the warm bed on that cold night all by myself, started some music and crashed in no time.

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The next morning I knew where to go, I had the entire Underground map registered in my head (also some help with the google maps! Wink wink). I headed straight to my favorite spot throughout London just to enjoy one of the best hot-chocolates in the city – The Zen café- right under the London eye. I took the underground got off at Westminster. I have my stories of this particular venue. I had been to this same place over 5 times in the past 2 years and it still seemed to connect to me in a way no other place in London ever did. Yes, it’s ‘The-place-for-tourists-from-around-the-world’, but for me it was about the chirpy voices of kids I didn’t know, the wide eyes of the old men and women I adored, the patience of men and women queuing up on the ticket counter. For me it was about my favorite hot chocolate made by the French guy I crushed on with hazel eyes. For me it was life. Seizing the beauty of that cold day with my eyes, I started toward this striking hidden beauty called ‘the-little-Venice’ of London. Although this place is most lively during London’s summer months, I decided to give my eyes a treat of its winter’s beauty. I started my walk from Warwick Avenue to the little Venice, and although I wasn’t as delighted as I was looking at the pictures of the place online, it still remains at the back of the mind. The dry leaves of that winter morning, the cold moisture that layered in the air, the colorful boats and the small street side pubs and cafes was what the place was all about.

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Post ambling around the beauty of the little Venice, I walked to Camden town and took an underground to Oxford Street to indulge in some retail therapy. I am a little brand conscious which makes me forget all my problems and fall in love with the entire stretch of what oxford street is. One can find all sorts of brands here – premium, mid-range, local – this place has it all. By 7 I was exhausted, literally. My backpack filled with all-things-shopped, my shoulders started to drop but I just couldn’t end my day without a final ‘english’ feel. I walked 10 minutes past the street to ‘Newman arms’, a traditional family run pub for a quick drink-and-chips session. I met a beautiful man there, 30 something years, and that place was no longer about drinks or the food, it was about the story that man shared with me and the sudden connection you feel with the unknown.

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I wrapped my day with some takeaway food and traveled back to my hotel. I read this quote inside a book my neighbor in the underground was reading and I can connect the most to it – “Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

That was how I spent one day in the city that enthuses me to feel free. Many people I know say I exaggerate what London really is. I just say ‘You don’t see what I see; you don’t feel what I feel’!

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The Road Less Traveled

When you talk about travel plans, people expect you to speak of the mainstream hill stations or luxury travel destinations. But there is a very thin line between a tourist and a traveller. And I consider myself to fall in the latter. Travel is pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and keeping an open mind to whatever comes your way. This is the reason why my girlfriends and I decided to take ‘the road less traveled’.

The Kheerganga trek was indeed a mind expanding experience for us first time trekkers. With zero knowledge of trekking, the whole idea of carrying a backpack and climbing uphill for over 13 km, the idea in itself seemed scary yet fascinating. With the help of a Delhi-based travel company (MytravelPie), it all seemed fun and possible.

We started from Manikaran where we met our Mytravelpie mate Nitin Ahuja. The rain gods decided to show no mercy upon us that afternoon. Nitin took us through all the details while we were driving to Barshaini. We got off at Barshaini and took a short trek up to Tosh (30 min). This actually seemed like a warm up trek before we could take over the 7-8 hour long trek up to Kheerganga the next day. Tosh is a hidden treasure amidst mountains and tall trees- a perfect home for hippies. Our trek partner Mytravelpie made sure we felt at home. We chilled that evening at the hilltop café. Must try food – hummus and pita, pizza and chocolate roti’s. Chilling under the coal black sky at 7 degrees, Nitin arranged us some wood and fire while we shared more travel stories.

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The next morning we were all set to take over the hills for the next 7-8 hours. There are 2 routes taking you up to Kheerganga – Kalga route(17 km) and Rudra Nag (13 km). We climbed down from tosh back to Barshaini and finally started our trek at 9:45 am taking the Kalga route. This route is filled with rocky-curvy pathways with bridges made from fallen trees and stones. This route took us through one of the most untouched mountains. Amidst all the greenery the parvati river roared in its own charm and pride.

I will be honest, giving up did occur to me many times through the journey, but when we did finally reach Kheerganga, the view was absolutely worth it. It was almost 6 pm by the time we reached Kheerganga. It was breezy and chilly. We threw our bags into the tents and climbed up for another 600 mt to get to the ‘parvati-kund’. It’s a natural water hot spring. One suggestion, DO NOT miss it. A dip in a hot water pool after making your body walk through dirt and mud and freezing water is TOTALLY worth the extra 600 mt climb. Indulging in the hot spring only made me feel like every bit of my body was melting away and before I knew all the pain my body was put through had vanished. It was a calm, cold evening atop Kheerganga with fellow travelers surrounding a bonfire, some good music, easy food and crazy stories.

The next morning we bid the oh-so-gorgeous Kheerganga a goodbye and started the trek downhill around 8 am. Our descent through Rudra nag was definitely more scenic. This was a fairly easier one till we got face to face with a landslide, crossing which seemed impossible. But our trek guide Hemu and a few other local men were at their best to help us all get through the landslide.

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We struggled through the last few kilometers of the trek and reached Barshaini around 1 pm. I remember turning around and looking at those vast mountains and smiling in bliss to the greenery and breathing that air one last time. When I saw the mountains the weight lifted and my restless spirit calmed… I knew I was where I belonged.

Each of us had an entirely different perspective to the trek. Each of us have our share of feelings attached to those untouched trails. But there is one thing that I am sure all of us would agree to – ‘It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. It’s always harder than it looks.’ To me the mountains spoke in silence to the very core of my being. To me hearing my heart roar into my ears and my feet clench in pain meant eternal satisfaction. By bringing myself to the edge and back, I discovered a passion to live my days fully, a conviction that will sustain me like sweet water on the periodically barren plain of our short lives.

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