Friday, May 28, 2010

Money, Money, Money

~ I’ve had one of those days where all I did was pay out my hard earned cash, and got very little in ‘return’ to show for it. Well, that’s how it feels, anyway.

You see, today I bought travel insurance for my upcoming trip ($757.00), and paid for a couple of nights accommodation in a Super 8 Hotel near Los Angeles international airport (US$132.56). In return for my $889.56 I got a couple of electronic receipts, and documents spelling out the numerous terms and conditions governing my purchases.

Quite frankly, it didn’t seem like a fair return to me.

That’s one of the problems with travel. You seem to spend weeks, if not months, paying out large sums of money before you see any actual return on your investment. So far I have paid out $5,427.00 towards my trip and I haven’t even left the house yet!

I’m trying valiantly to stem a rising tide of panic which in my worst case scenario sees me flying out of Australia without any money left in my account to enjoy my travels. Of course, I will have enough, but when you are constantly forking out for tickets, insurance, accommodation, and pre-booked tours and such, departure time can seem like a long way off, and your wallet begins to look very thin.

Add to this the constant worry of watching the world’s financial markets rise and fall like a kite caught in a hurricane, and endless calculations on just how much more (or less) the Australian dollar will buy each day, and I know exactly why I don’t feel anywhere near excited enough about my approaching departure.

I console myself with the thought that with a month still to go before I fly out, I have pretty much made all my major travel expenditures except for any day to day living expenses I will have to deal with.

Roll on June 29!

Click here to see The (Real) Cost of Travel...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Denmark Dolphin Killing Festival

~ I'm not big on boycotts. But today I became aware of a ‘festival’ so bizarre and disgraceful that I think the country that hosts it, deserves to be boycotted until the event is stopped.

The event in question is the annual pilot whale/dolphin killing festival which takes place in the Faroe Islands. The islands, sometimes Faeroe Islands, Faroe(s), or Faeroes are an island group situated between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, approximately halfway between Scotland and Iceland. The Faroe Islands are a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, along with Denmark proper and Greenland.

The atrocious slaughter you see depicted in the image illustrating this post, has been practiced since at least the 10th century, with around 1,000 creatures killed annually in the “grindadráp” (whale hunt) typically occurring during summer months.

Not surprisingly, the hunting of pilot whales/dolphins by residents of the Faroe Islands has long been a subject of controversy, and for good reason.

Although the International Whaling Commission enacted a ban on commercial whaling in 1986, pilot whales seem to be exempt because technically they are members of the dolphin family. To compound the problem, the Faroe Islands is one of the parts of the world where the IWC's rules still allow for subsistence hunting of such cetaceans.

As usual, supporters of the hunt maintain that the practise of killing pilot whales is "an age-old communal, non-commercial hunt aimed at meeting the community's need for whale meat and blubber." They also claim the animals are dealt with so quickly that their pain is brief, and that whale meat accounts for a quarter of the Faroe Islander's annual meat consumption.

Conservationists, on the other hand charge that the hunts, which take hundreds of whales at a time, are barbaric and pointless; that "the practice is outdated, cruel and unnecessary for a place with one of the highest standards of living in Europe." As if that is not enough, most of the whales go to waste - either being left on the beach to rot or thrown back to sea after they are killed.

While the Scandinavian countries have long been on my list of regions to visit, I for one will never visit Denmark, the Faroe Islands, or Greenland while this atrocious practice continues.

Visit this site for more images and links to videos which show this barbaric event in all its gruesome detail.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Training For Travel (Again)

~ Yesterday, I caught a train into the centre of Adelaide. Hardly a remarkable event given the everyday nature of the task. However it soon dawned on me that all transport systems are not created equal, and the transport system in dear little Adelaide is probably the least equal of all the major cities in Australia.

The reason for catching the train was so I could start getting used to the idea of not having my own motor vehicle to speed me from point A to point B, in a convenient and timely manner. You see, in ten days I fly to Melbourne for three weeks to house sit for the same people I house sat for in January. While in Melbourne I will be relying on that city’s extensive network of trams to get me from Fitzroy North into the city centre (and home again). And when I hit New York in July, I will be using the subway system there to navigate my way quickly from Washington Heights to downtown Manhattan.

Unfortunately, Adelaide is not Melbourne or Manhattan. As a result, the transport system here is nowhere near as frequent as the ones found in those two cities. Apart from the rush hour, here the trains run every half hour or so, and at night about once an hour. On weekends the trains again run about once an hour.

It stands to reason that if you are going to use the train system here, it helps to have a timetable for the line servicing your suburb, since if you miss one train you might have to wait up to an hour for the next one! In Melbourne and Manhattan, it doesn’t seem to matter that much if you miss your train/tram when you know another one will be along in 10-15 minutes. When the transport system is that frequent, you can pretty much dispense with timetables. Not so in Adelaide. Luckily I only had to wait for 20 minutes or so for the ride into town, but that was more than enough (and yes, I do now have a timetable for the Outer Harbor line which passes close to my home).

Still it’s good practise for world travel. It is easy to take modern transport systems for granted, even one as intermittent as Adelaide’s. But once you start travelling from country to country, using public transport becomes as much a part of the experience and adventure as anything else you might do. Especially when the signage and timetables (if they exist at all), are in a language you cannot speak – let alone read.

Come to think of it, this is as good a place to bear in mind this quote from Clifton Fadiman: "When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

24 Hours of World Air Traffic

A friend recently sent me a copy of this amazing video apparently showing the world’s air traffic for a period of 24 hours, with each green dot representing one aircraft. But is it real or is it a fake?

Quite frankly, I didn’t know. The video has been circulating around the Internet for some time, either attached to e-mail messages, or uploaded multiple times to video hosting sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Google Video, and dozens of others. So today, I decided to try and track down the people or organisation that created the original video, and see if I could turn up the definitive answer.

To my surprise, the answer was not that hard to find with both the Wired and NASA websites providing links to the clip. The original video animation was produced to be shown on the high definition 3D-Globe "Orbitarium" in Technorama - The Swiss Science Center in collaboration with the Institute of Applied Information Technology In IT, at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.

It seems the boffins at the school used a commercial website called FlightStats to gather global flight and schedule information for the departure and arrival times of every commercial flight in the world. They then plugged all that data into a computer to assemble their simulation.

As mentioned, the animation shows all scheduled flights over a 24h period (based on 2008 data). Apparently, every day some 93,000 flights are starting from approx. 9,000 airports, with between 8,000 and 13,000 planes in the air at any one time!

So, to answer my own question: Is it real or is it a fake? I am happy to declare the video animation to be real. I'm glad that's cleared up.


Monday, May 17, 2010

24 Hour Internet - $27.50!

~ Excuse me while I vent my spleen! I’ve just been reading a review of the Oaks Plaza Pier Hotel (15, Holdfast Promenade, Glenelg, Phone: 8350 6688), in my local Adelaide weekend paper, The Advertiser (May 8, 2010).

Dianne Mattsson, the reviewer, gives the hotel an overall rating of four stars, and for all I know it deserves everyone of them. However, the thing that has got my blood boiling is the list of ‘facilities’ she mentions – one of which includes 24 hour Internet access for AU$27.50* per day.

Twenty-seven fifty!

You can park your car with them for $16.00 a day, but if you want Internet access you have to pay $27.50 per day!

Are they mad?

Almost every budget chain hotel/motel in America provides free WiFi Internet access as a matter of policy, and here in Australia we have some dinky little hotel charging $27.50 a day. Do they think people are going to spend their whole stay locked in their rooms surfing the Internet? Are they afraid that the few cents it costs them to provide Internet access for each room is going to send them broke? Can’t they see, providing free Internet could set them apart from their opposition and give them the edge they need to attract more guests?

Heck if it really is that expensive to provide ‘free’ WiFi to each room, why not add a few dollars per day to each room rate, and recoup their investment that way. Some guests will use the service a lot; others will use it a little; and still others not at all.

In an age when WiFi enabled computers and mobile phones are ubiquitous, it makes no sense to charge your guests an extra $27.50 a day to keep in touch with family, friends, or the boss. Especially, when more and more local cafés are providing free WiFi to attract customers through their doors.

Mind you, the Oaks Plaza Pier Hotel is not alone in slugging travellers huge fees for Internet access. In Australia this appears to be the ‘rule’ rather than the exception. So in their defence, the hotel might argue they are just following the industry norm. To which I would say, So what? How about thinking outside the square? More importantly, how about joining the rest of us in the 21st Century, and providing what should be an essential service to your guests – just like the ‘free’ linen service, television, and other standard room facilities every traveller now takes for granted.

For my part, I will never pay extra for Internet access, when I can choose a hotel that provides the service as part of their standard booking. The more travellers refuse to pay extra (and explain why they choose not to stay at hotels that do charge extra fees), the sooner these hotels will begin to include free WiFi or broadband access as part of their standard service.

* While the Oaks Plaza Pier Hotel does give you the option to pay $10 for two hours of Internet access, in my opinion this is even more a waste of money, and a further insult to their guests.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Cultural Explorer: South Africa

~ I’ve never been to South Africa, but with interest in the country building as the Fifa World Cup Soccer competition gets closer and closer (11 June-11 July, 2010), now might be the perfect time to think about travelling there and seeing if South Africa has more to offer than soccer and safari’s.

For those who seek meaning, connection, and want to make a difference as they travel, a San Francisco-based cultural and philanthropic tour company, is offering a one-of-a-kind Zulu ‘empowerment’ volunteer tour into Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

This three-week trip in September 2010 (September 4-25), organised by The Cultural Explorer, gives volunteer travellers the rare opportunity to immerse themselves in the vibrant Zulu culture while participating in a variety of service-oriented projects. Travellers will be encouraged to design a project based on their own interests and skills: for example, volunteers might want to refurbish a school or to tutor students in math, science, English and art. Other volunteers might choose to work with children an orphanage or teach in a creche (day care centre). And still others might want to teach marketable skills to Zulu women and young people or assist rural businesswomen with marketing ideas.

Volunteer travellers will stay in a lovely hotel in the small rural town of Eshowe. There will be excursions daily into the numerous nearby Zulu villages -- with opportunities to observe traditional and contemporary life, attend a Zulu wedding, birthday, or healing celebration. Volunteers will visit with the local sangomas (traditional healers), the only white sangoma in South Africa, and attend meetings with Zulu educators. Travellers will also enjoy lively dinners with local activists, politicians, and entrepreneurs who are invested in making positive change within the Zulu community.

Volunteer travellers will also spend a weekend on a safari in the Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve, the oldest game park in South Africa, looking for the Big Five: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo. Also planned is side trip into the city of Durban and a chance to visit the beaches along the Indian Ocean.

The Zulu Empowerment trip starts in Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city, with an in-depth history lesson and an excursion to the Apartheid museum, Origins Centre, the thriving township of Soweto, and downtown Johannesburg. Travellers will be treated to authentic South African foods and music. The volunteer portion of the trip will be based in Kwa-Zulu Natal, about 7 hours south of Johannesburg, an area known for it's large Zulu population and diverse terrain.

Pat Walker, founder of The Cultural Explorer, has spent several years cultivating contacts within the Zulu communities in Natal. Her company offers both group and individual trips, and specialises in authentic cultural, volunteer, and philanthropic travel experiences.

Travellers will meet with her personal contacts and colleagues. "This is a one-of-a-kind volunteer trip," she says. “We have teamed up with a local family-run organisation that has been working in this area for several years. We find and their projects to be authentic and they really do make a big difference in the lives of the Zulu community. We are pleased to make this volunteer trip available to adventurous travellers who want to go beyond the ordinary travel experience."

About the Zulu:
The Zulu are the largest South African ethnic group of an estimated 10–11 million people who live mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Their language, Zulu, is a Bantu language. The Zulu Kingdom played a major role in South African history during the 19th and 20th centuries and the Zulu were known as fierce and determined warriors. Under apartheid, Zulu people were classed as third-class citizens and suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination. They remain today the most numerous ethnic group in South Africa, and now have equal rights along with all other citizens. The current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, is a Zulu.

Speaking of South Africa. Recently, I became aware of some amazing footage currently online via YouTube. Titled, Battle at Kruger the video shows a pride of lions attacking a young buffalo at Kruger National Park. What is really incredible is the fight the young creature puts up to survive and the even more amazing footage of the buffalo herd fighting off the lions in an attempt to save the calf. Warning: Not for the faint hearted!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lonely Planet Deals with Discount Codes

~ I recently wrote about a bunch of free iPhone applications being offered by Lonely Planet through the iTunes site. While that amazing offer has since ended, from time to time the company continues to offer good deals on some of their many other products.

For example, Lonely Planet are currently offering 30% discounts across the entire Gifts to Inspire category; and 30% discounts on all their National Park and Wildlife guides. You can also pick up a free Latin American or European phrase book with the purchase of the Peru country guide, or the Discover Europe guide book. And lastly, you can now buy the USA Book for just $19.99.

What's the catch?

These offers are available for a limited time only, and only if you use individual coupon codes with each purchase.

The 'good' news?

I just happen to have those coupon codes right here! So if you are planning a trip to Europe, Peru, or the USA (and are planning to visit some of America's great National Parks), then why not save yourself some money by following the links below and using the codes at the check out stage of your purchase to save some money.

Click here to Save 30% on Lonely Planet's entire Gifts to Inspire category. Use coupon code LPMOTHER

Click here to
Get The USA Book for only $19.99. Use coupon code MEMUSA at checkout

Click here to
Get a FREE Latin American phrase book with the purchase of the Peru country guide. Use coupon code NEWPERU at check out.

Click here to
Get a FREE European phrase book with the purchase of Discover Europe guide book. Use coupon code SPEAKEU at checkout

And finally, click here to
Save 30% on all National Park and Wildlife guides. Use coupon code PARKS at checkout

Note: Image for illustration purposes only

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Trip Advisor: Experts On Tap

~ I’ve written several times already about researching my New York trip. Today, however, I wanted to write about one of the best online sources for travel research I have discovered anywhere. features more than 30 million travel reviews and opinions from real travellers around the world; Over a million businesses covering 70,000+ cities, 450,000 hotels, 90,000+ attractions, and 560,000+ restaurants; Over two million candid traveller hotel photos covering 100,000+ hotels; and thousands of forums where you can ask (and answer) questions on any aspect of travel you care to ask about.
While I have only made selected use of TripAdvisor and the New York City forums in particular, there can’t be too many places on the planet that are not covered by a forum on the site.
I have used TripAdvisor to search for reviews of hotels, restaurants, and other places, and even contributed a review or two of my own), but it is the forums where TripAdvisor is proving to be most useful as I plan my New York stay. By reading through dozens of previously asked questions from prospective travellers to New York City (and asking a few of my own), I have learned about unusual tours, off-beat locations, and gained insider knowledge about many other hidden gems that most visitors to the city miss.
For example, take the responses to the question: Something different to do for a frequent traveler to NYC? (from someone calling themselves ‘MaconMemories’).
Reading through the 26 replies I learned about the Louis Armstrong House museum in Queens; the new(ish) Highline walkway; Italian cooking classes; a food tour with the Enthusiastic Gourmet; discovered the Walk New York City site; and this site which seems to list every major museum and gallery in New York. Add to all of this suggestions for exploring parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, and you can see there are a wide range of possible activities to consider - and all from just one query.
Some forum members are so knowledgeable about their city they have been designated Destination Experts by TripAdvisor. Indeed, some of these experts have posted thousands of replies to queries from travellers all over the world. And when I say ‘thousands’, I mean thousands. Some Destination Experts have post 10, 20, 30, and even 40 thousand or more replies to questions! I don’t know if these people have lives outside of answering queries on TripAdvisor, but they are always knowledgeable, patient, courteous, and very generous with their time.
Anyone can search through and read answers to previously posted questions, but if you want to ask a question yourself (or post a reply) you must create a user account first.
I have no hesitation in saying that TripAdvisor – and especially the forums there – is my first online stop when looking for ideas and answers to the many inevitable travel related questions I have.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Researching for Travel

~ How much research is too much? I ask this question because I have been spending hours online researching my summer New York trip, and everyday I find new and exciting events, places, and activities to add to my already extensive notes and burgeoning lists.

At some point you have to stop researching and start arranging your findings into some sort of coherent order so as to get a better idea of what your findings reveal. I’m probably at that point with researching my New York trip. In fact, I’ve got more than enough pencilled in to keep me busy for the whole of my stay, but I keep discovering extra things to add to my schedule. To make matters worse, several major events have yet to publish their full summer programs, which means I will need to return to their websites over the next month or so, to see what their final schedules will look like.

At least I know I will never be bored!

I believe it was Samuel Johnson who said of London, England, "The man who is tired of London is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford." A statement that surely applies to New York City even more so than London.

I certainly don’t expect to be bored in New York, and if I am, I will have no-one to blame but myself!

When I have more time I will list some of the many activities I am considering for my stay, but right now I’ve got to get back to my research. In the meantime take a look at my New York Dreaming entry…

Friday, May 7, 2010

iPhone App of The Week: New York Times

~ I’ve been using this free application from the New York Times for a couple of months now, and it has become my favourite source of news about America in general, and New York City in particular.

As soon as you launch the app, it downloads the latest news, and presents you with a list of around 15 of the days top news stories, along with the opening sentence of each so you can get a quick look at the latest headlines (see image). As always with the iPhone, you simply tap the screen to read a news story or scroll through the list to see what else is available.

Along the bottom of the application is a five icon menu bar which lets you jump to the Latest News, and the most popular Emailed news items. You can Save an article for future reference, and Search through the days news stories to find a topic that interests you.

However, the application offers much more than this.

Tapping the More icon (no pun intended) presents you with an array of 22 other icons representing the different sections in the hard copy of the daily New York Times. From World News and Technology to Sports and Travel; from Fashion & Style to Automobiles and Obituaries, every department of the physical paper seems to be available at the touch of a ‘button’.

~ Tapping the Edit button calls up another screen of icons with which you can modify the main menu bar that runs along the bottom of the screen.

You simply drag and drop your icon of choice over an existing menu item, and your icon will replace it. Due to lack of space, there is only room for five icons on the menu bar, and one of these must always be the More icon, but if you have a particular interest in one or two areas of news, this feature allows you to jump straight to them with one touch rather than two or three.

But wait – there’s more.

When you tap on an article to read it, the main menu bar is replaced with a new menu bar from which you can ‘share’ the article. A pop-up box lets you Email the item to yourself or anyone else on your Contacts list. In addition, you can send the article as a text message, or let your friends know about the item via Twitter or Facebook (assuming you have accounts with those sites). This new menu bar also lets you enlarge the font size of the on-screen print to make it easier to read, if you like me, struggle to make sense of anything under 10 or 12 point type.

Finally, the application has its own section under the iPhone’s Settings menu (accessed from the main screen). Here you will see a section headed General, from where you can make permanent changes to the way the New York Times app displays content each time you open it. For instance you can choose to Save News for… (1 to 7 days); change the Article Font Size… (from the smallest, 8pts to the largest, 14pts); turn Landscape Orientation… (on or off); and turn Large Headlines… (on or off).

In return for providing the application for free, the New York Times displays a thin strip of advertisements towards the bottom of the screen. Thankfully, the ads take up little screen space and are unobtrusive enough to not be a constant source of irritation. It’s a small price to pay for access to some of the best, most up-to-date newspaper content in America.

You will find the New York Times application in the iTunes App Store under the News section.

Highly recommended (even if you are not living in, or travelling to the United States).

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Training For Travel

~ For the past month or two I have been in training for travel.

Health professionals, and national health authorities constantly encourage people in first world countries to eat well, drink less alcohol, exercise regularly, and in the case of smokers, to give up the habit completely. Thankfully, I have never been a smoker and I’m only an occasional drinker, but at 110 kilograms (240 pounds) I can afford to lose some weight and not miss it.

The hard part is motivating myself to get up off the couch – or more to the point, to tear myself away from the computer – and find some type of exercise that will help me shed some weight and get a lot fitter.

My biggest problem is – I hate exercise. I get no pleasure at all from pumping iron at a gym, sweating profusely in an aerobics class, or sitting on a stationary bike pretending I’m in the pelaton at the Tour de France. As for running on a treadmill, all that conjures up for me are images of mice racing headlong on running wheels, getting nowhere fast.

As I say, I need something special to motivate me to get up and move. For me, this motivating factor has become travel. It is just the incentive I need to get fit or die trying!

Since travel tends to involve a lot of walking, I’ve settled on walking as the best low impact way of preparing myself for my next round of jet-setting. So every day, I head off to walk one of three circuits I have mapped out around my neighbourhood and along the foreshore between Semaphore and Largs Bay.

The three circuits involve distances of three kilometres (1.86 miles); five kilometres (3.10 miles); and eight kilometres (4.97 miles). How far I walk on a particular day, will depend on how I am feeling, but more and more I am walking the longer distance of eight kilometres. In fact, after a couple of months of regular walking, I have now become fit enough to extend that distance even further. Hence my previous entry, Walking Manhattan.

The more I walk, the more convinced I am that I can tackle the length of Broadway, which for my purposes I am measuring from the 207th Street/Inwood subway station to the running bull sculpture at Bowling Green. According to Google Maps this is a total distance of 20.4 kilometres, or 12.67 miles. Again, according to Google, this distance could be covered in around four hours and eleven minutes of continuous walking.

Clearly, a reasonably fit person should have no trouble completing this walk. However, at 61 years of age, I am not quite reasonably fit – or ready to take on 20 kilometres. Yet. But I’m getting there. By the time I hit the streets of New York City in July, I will be ready, although I have no intention of completing the distance in one long continuous four hour walk. With rest stops and some sightseeing along the way, it is more likely to take the better part of 8-10 hours, but complete it I will.

So if you have problems like I do with exercise, take my advice and don’t call it by that name. Instead call it Training for Travel. It might just be the incentive you need to get up off the couch and out to the gym or onto the streets of your neighbourhood, in preparation for your next journey.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Frugal Traveller Takes it Slow

~ I’ve written before about slow travel The Slow Traveller, and the benefits that can be derived from that form of travel. Now that I am getting closer to my next extended trip, I thought I’d take another look at the concept.

At the end of June, I am heading off to the USA for three months, two of which will be spent in New York City. Having visited New York in 2008, and having seen many of the major tourist attractions (State of Liberty and Ellis Island, Empire State Building and numerous major galleries and museums, etc), I am not fussed about returning again to some of these locations.

However I do want to get a sense of how life is for the average New York resident. Or at least how it might be for a local resident on vacation, since I don’t have to go to work five days a week while I am there, and contend with the morning and afternoon rush hours.

So how does a slow traveller get the most out of their travel experience? By acting like a local and participating in the same events the local citizens will be getting involved in. This time I want to immerse myself in many of the events that New Yorkers will also be participating in. To that end, for the past few weeks I have been spending hours a day, researching some of the hundreds of events being planned for July and August in New York. Many of the websites I have visited are yet to post their full summer schedules, so I will need to come back to those over the next few weeks.

Things like the many free or low cost events that take place around the city every summer. For example: Shakespeare in The Park, the Central Park Summerstage program, free film screenings and music performances in Bryant Park, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors summer festival (July 28–August 15), as well as numerous other free events at the Lincoln Center, free events put on by the City Parks Foundations, and events at many other locations.

Perceptive readers will have noticed my repeated use of the word ‘free’.

The only way I can afford to spend three months in America, and two in New York City is by making my limited finances stretch as far as possible. Thus, there will be no luxury accommodations, no $100 meals, and no spending sprees on Fifth Avenue for this frugal traveller. Instead I will be making the most of the hundreds of free or almost free events taking place across the whole of New York.

My few indulgences will include a Broadway show (or two), possibly a cooking class with Rustico Cooking, a Hidden Harbor Tour, a couple of major concerts (if I can find something or someone worth seeing), and several other events currently in the pipeline.

I’m sure I will return to this theme over the coming weeks and months as my departure date approaches. However, if you have any places on your must see list favourite New York locations, or better still hidden gems you think I should know about, I’d love to hear about them.

You know what to do. The Comments box awaits.
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