Figurines in Mai Chau, Vietnam


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July 22, 2014 · 10:15 pm

Day trip to Tam Coc, Vietnam


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Having gotten to Hanoi a day before Typhoon Rammasun was set to strike Vietnam, I found my options for traveling relatively limited, as all trips to Halong Bay and other adventures along the coast were all preemptively cancelled. Fortunately, my hostel was very accommodating and found me some alternative trips that I could do, and I got very lucky with an amazing day trip to Tam Coc, or the “dry Halong Bay.” Tam Coc is located approximately 100 km from Hanoi, boasting three limestone caves that sit over a long, winding Ngo Dong river that runs through the picturesque karst mountains.

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We were picked up from our hotel around 8 in the morning and driven for about an hour to our first destination, which was a temple mounted in honor of one of the former kings of Vietnam. Our guide, Lucky, told us a little bit about the history of the area, then let us roam around on our own. We spent about twenty minutes at the temple, then set out again toward Tam Coc. When we arrived we ate a generous buffet lunch full of fresh and tasty regional foods, then set out on our two hour boat trip up the river.
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In front of the small lagoon where the boats are held are people peddling souvenirs and goods, most of which are pretty tacky. Some of the items, like the local rice-paddy style hat, might have come in handy on the boats, which were entirely in the sun. Our boats were paddled by local women and men, usually two to a boat, with one person rowing with his or her feet and another paddling by hand. Most of them were either wearing one of the hats or holding an umbrella to shield them from the harsh sun, and I would suggest doing the same if you’re planning on doing one of these tours, as there were few opportunities to take a break from the sun along the two-hour journey.

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The few breaks we did get from the sun came in the form of the three limestone caves that broke up the river. These caves are still being rapidly built and changed by the water seeping through the rocks from the plants above. In some places there’s water literally pouring down from above, and its pretty cool to get to see a cave being changed basically as you’re traveling through it.

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The whole trip is picturesque, personal (2 people per boat was the norm), and a great way to get to explore the mountains, especially with Halong Bay temporarily out of the picture. If I were to do the trip again I definitely would have put on more sunscreen, brought an umbrella for the sun and stocked up on water well before getting on the boat. The only drawback to the tour was that people were constantly trying to sell you things, from pictures they’d snap of you while you were trapped on the boat, to flowers, drinks, snacks and hats, and I even heard of some of the rowers trying to get more money out of their tourists, which unfortunately puts a damper on the beauty of the whole trip. Overall, though, the trip was definitely worth the time and the price (about $40 with all transport and food included), and made for an awesome alternative to Halong Bay!
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Tassie Experience: Taking a Cooking Class at the Agrarian Kitchen


Just before my return trip to Tasmania, I decided that I really wanted to do one of Tassie’s famous cooking courses. I did some last-minute research to try and find a class that suited my interests and my dates, and was a little bit disappointed that I couldn’t find a class for the dates I was going. And then I stumbled upon a blog post that talked about the Agrarian Kitchen and, after looking into it, realized that there was a class offered during the time I’d be in Tassie. I booked the course right away, not entirely sure what I was in for but definitely excited to check it out. The course itself was more expensive than I would have liked, but the rave reviews all said that the price was justified by the experience, and they were definitely not wrong.

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The course that I did was the Agrarian Experience, whose winter session ran on July 1st.  I rented a car and headed out early in the morning, but unfortunately didn’t rent a GPS and got myself painfully lost. I made it to the class half an hour late, but was welcomed all the same and was thrown right into the first activity, which was bread making. We were taught the proper way to knead and throw the dough in order to get the elasticity just right, then popped the dough into a covered bowl and let it settle for several hours.

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Our menu was impressive, and the names of the dishes themselves were enough to get our mouths watering. The dishes on the menu for the day were: pink-eye potato latkes with bresaola, quail eggs, and a parsley apple salad, goat curry with flaky flat bread, chermoula pumpkin with quinoa and yoghurt, a winter salad, spice poached quince and mascarpone dacoise, and of course the wood-fired rustic bread.

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After we prepared our dough we were given a set of rain boots and a basket with a set of clippers, then set out into the yard for a tour of the farm and to collect some of our goodies for the day. The Agrarian Kitchen farms almost all of the fresh foods that we would be using for our dishes, depending on what was in season. We were shown the smokehouse first, and had all of the smoking techniques explained in detail. The farm raises their own animals for smoking, and built their smokehouse specifically for the dry smoking of their meats and cheeses.

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We toured the pens of the animals next, seeing the pigs and chickens that they kept on-site. There were two to six or so pigs per enclosure, with plenty of space to root around and explore. The farm specifically plans out which animals are meant to live where, and change up the enclosures frequently, with the aim of accomplishing maximum soil fertility through the use of natural means. In addition to having flexible and impermanent enclosures for their animals to help  naturally replenish soil fertility, the farm also uses horse manure from nearby farms, “green manure”  (dead plants laid out un-composted as a top layer and allowed to decompose naturally), and compost to organically add to the quality of the soil.

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During our mini-tour of the farm, we hand-picked some of the ingredients we would be using, including carrots, radishes, coriander, celeriac plants, cabbage and parsley. We headed back inside with our food and reassembled, ready to start cooking our main courses. Our group broke the menu down into different dishes that we’d be in charge of, and I was primarily in charge of the dessert. We were given a recipe book with all of the recipes and shown as a group the major techniques involved with each recipe so that we would be capable of cooking all of them on our own. When a group finished with one dish they moved on and helped with the preparation of another until all the groups had finished and the meal was ready to eat.

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We began with the pink-eye potato latkes, which were topped with a delicious home-cured meat and served with quail eggs and a parsley-apple salad, served with a glass of white wine. About twenty minutes later we were back in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on the main dishes and the sides, serving them up and bringing them to the main table. The goat curry, pumpkin and quinoa, and the winter salad were served up in a group of three, and comprised the main meal. Every single dish was fantastic, satisfying, well-balanced, and served with a glass of red wine that was generously topped-up at every opportunity.

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When the main meal was over we assembled our desserts and put in an order for tea or coffee. The Agrarian Kitchen makes most of their herbal teas on-site, and come up with unique, fresh blends that were exciting to taste. The finishing touches on our desserts involved powdered sugar and a blowtorch, which seemed a little unorthodox but was fun to play with all the same.

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Unfortunately the day had to come to an end, but we were sent home with full stomachs, an apron, and our loaves of bread, which we wood-fired while dinner was cooking. Overall the experience was absolutely amazing, and highly recommended to anyone with a passion for cooking, sustainability, and getting a truly authentic Tassie foodie experience.

 

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Vivid Sydney: The Opera House I


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July 6, 2014 · 5:00 am

Three Days on Kangaroo Island


After our Great Ocean Road adventure, Cheyenne and I made our way down to Kangaroo Island, accessible by a bus/ferry from Adelaide. We got to the island around ten am on our first day and rented a car, then headed out for the day.

Day One:

Our first day was unexpectedly bright and sunny, so we decided to do a drive partway down the southern coast. We happened upon our first stop by chance on a wrong turn, ending up at Clifford’s Honey Farm. We did a quick tour of their back room and one of their hives, then perused the gift shop. This tiny little store had honey-themed everything, and offered free honey tastings of six or seven of the varieties they sell in store. Unfortunately I’d just bought honey in Melbourne, but I did snag an all-nautral non-petroleum based lip moisturizer and an awesome strawberry scented bar of soap.

We were encouraged to stop by the eucalyptus distillery, and we got there a little bit before it closed. It was pretty empty and not all that interesting, so unless the history of eucalyptus oil is something you’re really into, I’d give it a pass. They do have some cool eucalyptus based products, but they were a little bit expensive and some of them were a bit impractical.

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Our big stop for the day was the Raptor Domain, which I would highly recommend. Raptor Domain features shows at set times, and the shows are the only way that you get to see the animals. They’re very reasonably priced and you can pick and choose which ones you want to do, and the two that we did were very interactive. We got there just before the reptile show, which features blue-tongue lizards, skinks, and a few different varieties of snake. We were told a little bit about each species, instructed on how to handle them, and given the opportunity to hold or touch most of the species.

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The next show we attended was the birds of prey show, which featured two different types of owls, an eagle, kookaburras, and a few other birds as well. A $10 donation allows you to hold one of their juvenile eagles, which was a pretty nifty experience. The rest of the bird encounters were included in the show.

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We finished our day with the last tour of Seal Bay, where a guide escorted us down to the beach to observe their seal colony. For about half the price we could have only walked the boardwalk, but opted for the tour and were not disappointed . The beach itself is beautiful, and the seals were very cute and in their natural habitat.


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Day Two:

On our second day we went to Paul’s Place, a family-run wildlife park that houses a number of kangaroos, emus, an African deer, a koala, two echidnas, birds, reptiles, snakes and an injured baby possum. The park’s insurance only allows adults (18+) due to their insurance, so this wouldn’t be an option for those with younger kids. It was an amazing experience as an adult, though, and it was nice not to have to worry about having young children around.
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Admission to Paul’s Place is only $15, and it costs and extra $3 to hold their koala, Lou. Our tour started with Paul enthusiastically asking who wanted to feed a kangaroo, and I volunteered. I was pretty surprised when he pulled out a converted beer bottle (full of a kangaroo-friendly substance!) and plunked one of the roos into my arms like a baby. After that we were given some barley to feed to the animals. Unfortunately the emus didn’t seem to know their own strength and tended to peck aggressively at your hands to get the food, which was more painful than it was pleasurable. The kangaroos were all very docile, though, and we had a lot of fun frolicking around with them.

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I was 100% not kidding about the pain of being pecked by an emu.

I was 100% not kidding about the pain of being pecked by an emu.

After the roos we were led into another yard and got to hold the Koala, Lou. Lou was an orphan and has been with the park for six years, and was more than happy to cling on to all the excited tourists. We were also given the opportunity to cuddle an orphaned baby possum, which was adorable and tucked into a soft blanket,  snacking away happily on almonds. After the koalas we were taken into a large, fenced-in area, which held the two echidnas and all of the birds. Paul coaxed the echidnas out with some larvae, and we were allowed to pet them gently as they munched.

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Our last part of the tour involved the reptiles, and Paul’s wife and kids carefully passed around the reptiles. The highlight of this section was definitely the massive snake that he had, and which we were invited to hold if we were up to it. We were seen off by an excitable alpaca, and headed back to our town for some dinner.

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Day Three:

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Our last day was more of a half-day than a whole day, but we set out early enough and managed to check out the Kelly Caves and Flinder’s Chase, which is definitely the most photogenic part of the island. Even though the weather was pretty rough, we managed to check out the Remarkable Rocks, which were pretty amazing, and were lucky enough to see a double rainbow over the rocks on our way in! We payed the price for that little bit of awesome in the form of a freak hailstorm cropping up as we were on our way out, but the weather held out long enough for us to explore a little bit before we ran back to the car.

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Walking down to the Admiral’s Arch felt a little bit dangerous in the winds, and on my way up I nearly got blown off the boardwalk. It was worth the struggle, though, and I snapped a few quick photos of the arch before I scurried my way back to safety. I made a short pit stop by the fur seals, which had a few adorable and playful pups who seemed unfazed by the snappy weather.

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We left Flinder’s Chase around 1:30 to return our car to the ferry port by 3, but our plans unfortunately took a hit when we were told that all ferrys were cancelled for the day due to the weather. We were a bit bummed but made the most of it by treating ourselves to a great steak dinner, wine and some gluten free chocolate cake!

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Road Trippin’ the Great Ocean Road, Australia


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Last Tuesday, Cheyenne and I started our mini-road trip from Melbourne to Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road. We rented our car at the Avis near Southern Cross Station on Tuesday morning, aiming to get to Apollo Bay by that evening. We started out at 10 am with some packed lunches, and got to our first stop-off at Torquay Beach around 11:30. The beach itself is easy to get to, wide-open, pet-friendly and generally very well kept. We were lucky enough to get a little bit of sunshine while we ate, but unfortunately the pet-friendliness of the beach ended up with Cheyenne losing some of her lunch, as a cheeky yellow lab snagged most of her Foccacia while we had our backs turned.

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After a little more play time on the beach, we set back out on the road and drove for another five hours. The scenery was breathtaking and we found ourselves stopping all the time for photo-ops, and the views just kept getting better and better! We spent a good deal of time at the Great Ocean Road memorial arch, which also had a small military commemoration and was generally a nice place to have a rest for a few minutes.

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Along the way we noticed that Australia is particularly fond of aggressive road signage and polarizing place-names, with signs including friendly warnings (“drowsy drivers die,” “survive this drive,” and “fatigue is fatal” were three of my personal favorites), and with places of interest called things “Shrapnel Gulley” and “Mt. Defiance.” Our first day of driving lasted about five hours, and we arrived at our hostel around 3 pm.

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We ended the night in Apollo Bay, a quiet little beachfront town with an amazing youth hostel. We stayed at the Apollo Bay Eco YHA, which was more like a dorm-style hotel than a hostel and had very friendly owners, an amazingly homey living room, and a big, bright, functional kitchen. It was a five or so minute walk from the nearest grocery store and a five minute walk from the beach, and was overall an amazing place to stay.

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Day 2

Cheyenne and I had a bit of a late start on the second day of our trip, getting out around 10:30 am. Our first stop was the Cape Otway Lighthouse, which was scenic and had some great grounds to walk around. Entry to the Cape Otway area was $19.50, and included entry to the park, to an aboriginal museum, to a museum devoted to dinosaur fossils, and to the lighthouse. The lighthouse had a friendly and knowledgeable tour guide on top, eager to answer any questions we might have had about the area. The view from the top of the lighthouse was equally great, and in the right season makes for a great whale-watching location.

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We had some soup at Cape Otway’s café, which was expensive but perfect for the chilly day, and the café couldn’t have been in a more scenic spot. As we ate we heard some of the history of the lighthouse and the cape, and learned that it was the port through which many immigrant Australians came from 1848 onward.

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After we finished lunch we started driving again, moving slightly further away from the ocean for a few dozen kilometers as we drove through densely tree’d areas. The roads were windy but felt pretty safe, and the scenery was absolutely gorgeous. After an hour or two of driving we entered into wine and farming country, and we made a few pit stops along the way.

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Our first pit stop was the G.O.R.G.E chocolate makers, which offered some free samples and chocolates that came in a variety of different flavors, shapes and sizes. The chocolates themselves are tasty and not particularly expensive; I bought a large milk chocolate bar, a pair of chocolate frogs, a chocolate koala and kangaroo set, and a large chocolate “freckle” (chocolate topped with colorful sprinkles) for $13.50. The G.O.R.G.E chocolatiers also had two resident miniature horses who were super cute and friendly!

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A few kilometers up the road was the Artisanal Whet Cheese makers, whose farm and cheese making facilities are located in the middle of the gorgeous countryside. They offered a free cheese tasting with a selection of 9-11 cheeses, all made on site. I can’t say there was a single cheese that I tried that I didn’t like, but I absolutely loved their chili and garlic marinated feta! I bought a box of it for $10, which was definitely more than worth it. Unfortunately, I was unable to try the blue cheeses they had on offer as I’m allergic to penicillin and I’m gluten intolerant, but I have it on good authority that they were also pretty tasty!

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Our last stop on our mini foodie tour was one of the vineyards another few kilometers up the road, but unfortunately they were closed when we got there. Thankfully we were 100% satisfied with our chocolate and cheese, so we weren’t too disappointed!

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Our next stop on the road was the 12 Apostles, which are probably the most famous landmark on the entire trek. Day tours will take you directly there from Melbourne, and the area itself was pretty crowded with throngs of tourists. There’s a nice beach before the apostles that I think I liked even better than the apostles themselves, as it was quiet but very scenic and not super well-touristed. The weather was pretty volatile during our drive, though, and the waves were way bigger than I had expected. As a result, I had to change my skirt when we got back up to the car, having been hit unexpectedly by the renegade tide and been soaked up past my knees.

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We traveled the next 200 or so kilometers to Mt. Gambier without many stops, and stayed the night at the Mt. Gambier Gaol Hostel, which used to be used as a prison and a halfway house. The hostel was undergoing renovations, but thankfully the woman who runs the place accommodated us anyway, and we had an awesome (but kind of creepy) night, even though we were the only guests there.

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The next day we drove another five-ish hours off the Great Ocean Road until we got to Adelaide. This leg of the journey definitely wasn’t as scenic, but was a nice drive all the same. If you ever get the chance to do the Great Ocean Road I’d definitely recommend it, but unless you’re super pressed for time, stay clear of the tours! Its way more rewarding (and probably cheaper) to do it on your own.

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-Natalie

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Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road


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June 20, 2014 · 12:04 pm

Day Trip to the Healesville Sanctuary


Animal encounters have been one of my favorite parts of Australia so far, and one of the best places I’ve been has been the Healesville Sanctuary. Healesville is located an hour to an hour and a half outside of Melbourne, and is host to a number of different indigenous species, including kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, Tasmanian devils, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, birds and dingoes. The sanctuary offers “encounters” with the animals, which vary by price based on species. Some offers, such as the kangaroos, are free and open-air, while the price for dingoes is $12, the price for wombats is $20, and the price for a platypus encounter is upwards of $180.

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Cheyenne and I booked our encounters when we arrived at the sanctuary around 11 am, and managed to snag spots on a 12 pm wombat encounter and a 2:15 pm dingo encounter. We stopped by the kangaroo enclose to kill some time before heading to the wombats and were fortunate enough to be alone and some of the roos first visitors. A few were extra curious and friendly, and thought that I would make an awesome cuddle buddy and/or source of food, and they came up and nuzzled me without any coaxing. We returned to the roos later on in the day, but they were much more aloof and didn’t seem to want to approach anyone.

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After the roos we walked through the platypus enclosure and ogled the Tassie devils for a few minutes before waiting outside the wombats enclosure for our encounter. Healesville had a professional photographer taking photos of us, but we were also allowed to bring in our own cameras and get a few snaps. Our wombat of choice was called Bob, a 15 month old adolescent wombat who had been orphaned when he was young. Wombats are only cuddly for a short period of time in their youths, and Bob was in his last few months of being young enough to interact with before he became too large and too aggressive to love on any longer. We were given a few minutes each to hold and snuggle him, and his caretaker informed us that the wombats like to be rocked like babies as it reminds them of being in their mothers pouches as younglings. After fifteen minutes we said our sad goodbyes to Bob and moved on, touring the wallaby enclosure and the numerous bird enclosures.

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At the bird enclosures we were able to feed some of the birds, the first group of which were a little bit disinterested but cooperated for photos all the same. The second group of birds were significantly hungrier and swarmed us when we were given their food. At one point I’m pretty sure I had six or seven needy, frantic birds on me at once, which was uncomfortable but apparently hilarious enough for strangers to take photos of. The sanctuary also offered a birds of prey show at 2:15, where they speak about some of their resident birds, tell an audience about each species’ quirks and tendencies, and then exhibited some structured behaviors unique to each bird.

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Our last encounter of the day was the dingo encounter, where we met two semi-friendly and very treat-eager dingoes. We were in a group of six or so, with two very small children who maybe should have waited a little bit longer before coming to see the dingoes. The staff were very specific and strict about where, how and when the dingoes could be petted, and the younger children weren’t really capable of following the instructions or didn’t understand why the rules were in place. The dingo encounter was still pretty good, but if doing a visit to the sanctuary I would definitely recommend some of the other encounters first. The dingoes were pretty friendly, and even offered a little kiss on the way out!
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The sanctuary also has a nifty little café, which offers gluten free and vegetarian foods. It can be a little pricey, but was generally pretty tasty and a nice way to end the day. If you’re planning a trip to Australia, I would most definitely suggest adding Healesville Sanctuary to your list!

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Holding a Wombat at the Healesville Animal Sanctuary near Melbourne, Australia!


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June 16, 2014 · 10:34 am

Movida Street Art, Melbourne


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