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  • Day4

    Our trip to Pender Island started off on a bit of a hangry note. After driving up the West Coast (and back down), moving on to Butchart Gardens (and deciding not to visit), we made our way to the ferry terminal in hopes of grabbing something to eat and saying farewell to our German travel buddies.

    Turns out that the ferry terminal is just, well, a ferry terminal, and a busy one at that. Only ticketed passengers could visit the cafe so we had to say farewell much earlier than originally planned. Even though the terminal was very busy, the Land's End Cafe was a much smaller version of a US truck stop, only worse. With limited food options, we opted for an Amy's Organic bean & cheese burrito and a four cheese individual sized pizza.

    We hadn't done much planning for Pender except pick our camp site which was accessible only via water or hiking in. Since we would be hiking in and had read about the island's car stop system (civilized hitchhiking with signs and benches), we decided not to take a rental car. Our minimal planning also left us a little strapped for food due to the limited cafe choices and the lack of mobility on the island with no car. We grabbed a couple bags of chips, a banana, and a cookie to accompany our selection of trail mix and granola bars for dinner.

    Once on the island, we started on our way to find a car stop in hopes of hitching a ride to get at least somewhat closer to the trailhead. We had no takers, but fortunately the island's community shuttle (donation based) took us within 30 minutes walking distance of it. Nico had mentioned that it was an easy hike in but after the initial climb and signs warning of a steep trail, we knew it wasn't going to be a walk in the park. Wanting to get to the campsite with enough daylight to set up our tent, we booked it as quickly (and safely) as we could along the ~1.5 miles down to the water.

    Upon arrival, we were bummed to find that someone had set up camp in our reserved spot. There were other vacant spots, but the one we had chosen was more private and off the main path. We set up at another site just in time to watch the sunset while snacking on our "dinner". The campsite looked over a bay and part of the northern side of the island.

    After an early wakeup call by an inquisitive bee, we packed up and were on our way. We couldn't pass up a detour to the island's highest point, Mt. Norman, towering above the sea at 240 meters. Despite only being 1 km, the track provided an early morning bun buster with a nearly continuous incline. It was well worth the effort - we were rewarded with pretty spectacular views over the Gulf Islands and Salish Sea on yet another clear day.

    Worried about the reliability of the car stop system, we headed back down and towards town. We only waited about 5 mins at the nearest car stop when a friendly resident gave us a ride to the local mall. We stopped at Jo's for brunch - a true hidden gem with friendly service and delicious bennies and skillets (side note: breakfast bennies appear to be the bee's knees in Canada as every breakfast place we visited served a variety of them). Since we sat outside, we could also follow the solar eclipse along with a group of locals. The Vancouver area saw ~90% eclipse - it was pretty cool to see the sky noticeably darken at 10 AM.

    It didn't take long to hitch a ride back to the ferry from another friendly local on her way to picking blackberries, and then we were en route back to Victoria followed by our flight back home. We got some more awesome views over the Salish Sea on the way out, all the way from Vancouver down to Washington. Future trip note: check out Olympic and Mt. Rainier National Parks.
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  • Day3

    We picked up a minivan to cruise along the rugged West Coast of Vancouver Island. After passing through some small towns, the road met up with the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Few people live on this side of the island (due to heavy rainfall and strong winds) so we were mainly surrounded by thick forests and hills.

    We parked at the southern terminus of the Juan de Fuca trail which runs 47 km parallel to the shore. We only did a short section of the hike, down to Mystic Beach. We entered a lush forest with trees covered in moss, running creeks, and several slugs. It was somewhat reminiscent of New Zealand's Fjordland park, an area that sees even more annual rainfall.

    After 45 minutes, we arrived at the rocky beach. Several camps were still set up from the night before. The rugged coastline stretched far in both directions, disappearing only into the fog. The limestone cliff walls were porous from the ever-present water runoff.

    On the way back, the fog cleared just enough to reveal the mountain outline of the Olympic National Park sitting above a thin layer of clouds.
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  • Day2

    Although we love Seattle, our visit to the city was short lived. We boarded the 9am ferry for a 2.5 hour trip to Victoria. The entire journey was really scenic: lots of green islands lining the Puget Sound, the snow-capped mountains of the Olympic National Park in the backdrop, and the bigger waves in the Strait of Juan de Fuca crossing into Canada, all under blue skies and sunshine.

    We arrived in beautiful Victoria and met Johanna's sister, Ludia, and her boyfriend, Tim, who had arrived the night before. We explored the downtown area and grabbed a bite to eat before heading to Fisherman's Wharf for a kayak trip in the harbor.

    It was seal pupping season so we were hoping to see some baby seals but unfortunately the wind had picked up at the beginning of our trip and we didn't make it to the pupping area. While we did see a few seals, it wasn't quite as exciting as we had hoped.

    For dinner, we found a highly rated burrito/taco joint that didn't disappoint. It was the first time for half of the party to try a burrito and it probably won't be their last. We capped off the night with a few cocktails at a lively bar.
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  • Day1

    We quickly jumped on a chance for another weekend trip when Nico's cousin, Phillip, and his girlfriend, Johanna, planned a trip to our friendly neighbors to the north. The plan was to fly into Seattle and then take the ferry North through the Puget Sound to Victoria in Vancouver Island. Since it was summer time and we were trying to increase our camping IQ for an upcoming trek, we packed only our backpacks for the 3 day trip.

    Upon arrival in Seattle, we hopped on the Link to our hotel in the Belltown neighborhood. Seattle is always great to visit because the fun neighborhoods remind us of Denver and we love being surrounded by water. We strolled over to the Pike Place market area for some delicious mules with homemade ginger beer. Afterwards we met Nico's cousin and girlfriend at Elliot's, remembering the good salmon from a previous visit. It wasn't quite as good this time around, but we still enjoyed sitting on the pier for sunset.
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  • Day17

    The return journey started with its own unique set of challenges. We were initially booked on Qatar Airways, but then had to rebook when all flights between Qatar and several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, were suspended due to political reasons. We rebooked on British Airways. Then, 3 days before our return flight, we found out that there are some changes in the baggage policies, similar to those of the US for Middle Eastern countries. As a result, we had to leave our powerpack and reusable batteries in Cairo; not even checked baggage was an acceptable location. Frustrating since we had no head notice, but understandable if that's deemed necessary for security reasons.

    Also, the 20 hour journey gave us plenty of catch up on blog posts! Unfortunately hygge is hard to maintain when returning to LAX, given the massive delays and congestion. But alas, it was great being on the road for 17 days!

    Reflections:

    The Egyptian history is some of the richest in the world, and much of it is incredibly well preserved despite being more than 2500 years old. Still, Westerners were few and far between, likely due to the perception of instability since the 2011 revolution. Don't get this wrong, we don't want the place to be overrun with Western tourists, but it's unfortunate for a country dependent on tourism to leave airports deserted and craftsmen without demand for their products. Especially with the immense history of people that are likely all our ancestors. We plan to return to Egypt to see the Valley of the Kings in Luxor in the future.

    Many people asked us about safety concerns before leaving for this trip, but never once were we worried while in Egypt. All public spaces and hotels had security and metal detectors, and there was a noticeable police presence on the roads. Accidents or attacks can happen anywhere, but we're not going to let that stop us from traveling (within reason).

    The Red Sea diving is quite good and very affordable. We'd recommend it for someone interested in a liveaboard trip somewhere new, and to combine it with some fascinating history.

    What's next? That's still in the works, but there's one (inhabited) continent we haven't checked out yet.
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  • Day16

    Warning that this is a very long post. We wanted to include enough historical context to remember how fascinating it was to revisit high school history class experientially.

    We woke up early to grab breakfast, pack up, and check out of the hotel before our pyramids tour. We grabbed a taxi to a nearby hotel where the tour would begin. We happened to be the only ones on the tour so we set off right away to get to the pyramids in time for opening time at 8. Mahmoud, our guide, explained that we would be using a side gate to avoid the crowded main entrance and would get to experience the pyramids alone, at least for a little.

    The pyramids were built to house the body of the Pharaohs and their treasures so that the soul could rejoin the body in the after life. The pyramids at Giza were part of the oldest era. After the tombs were frequently robbed post-mortem, the burial for Pharaohs thereafter was moved underground to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. The majority of those were also robbed, but some remained undiscovered - more on that later. The Great Pyramid is the only remaining of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. It's still unknown exactly how the Egyptians had the technology to build such structures. If it were to be deconstructed, the stones could form a 2 meter high wall around the perimeter of France - that's absolutely mind-boggling.

    We started with a view of the 3 main pyramids and the Sphinx. The only other people were vendors and camel keepers getting ready for a long, hot day. Even at 8, the temperature was already at 35C. We chose an 'adventure' tour, of course, which would include walking from the Sphinx to the main entrance by the Great Pyramid. It wasn't a great distance, but the heat and flies made it seem long enough.

    Mahmoud insisted that we take a typical tourist shot kissing the Sphinx so Brittany continued with the Egyptian tourist photo ways. We really did have the place to ourselves until other tourists began to trickle in as we neared the main entrance. We were going to go inside the Great Pyramid, but it was already very crowded by the time we reached the main entrance to buy tickets, so we decided to try the smallest pyramid instead.

    Our tour bus took us to the panorama plateau where one could capture the 3 pyramids together. A dusty layer of fog sat low in the sky that made the city behind the pyramids vanish, making it even more surreal. Even with the multiple tourists, taking more touristy photos, it was great way to take in one of our world's greatest wonders.

    The smallest pyramid, fortunately, was a lot less busy and we got the experience of going inside the inner chambers to ourselves. Our guide had taught us how to say thank you in Arabic ('shokran') and it was helpful in politely declining the tacky souvenirs and pushy salesmen that we encountered multiple times.

    Not wanting to participate in camel riding, our tour of the pyramids ended a bit early. As part of the tour, we were to experience Koshary, a typical Egyptian meal. However, Mahmoud felt it was too early at 1030 since it was typically eaten at lunch time (which is at 5, our dinner time) so he offered falafel sandwiches for breakfast (lunch). We weren't yet hungry so we visited a "proper" papyrus shop first.

    In the papyrus shop, we were shown how paper from the plant was made and how durable it is - durable enough to have survived for 1000's of years. They had beautiful artwork on the papyrus that was available for purchase. We chose to get one with the Egyptian calendar and one with Bastet, goddess in the form of a cat.

    Since we were the only ones on the tour and had mentioned interest in going to the Egyptian museum, Mahmoud offered to continue as our guide. We asked to combine it with a visit to one of the city's great mosques and a walk through the historic market (Bazaar). We took him up on his offer since he was very knowledgeable and $50 for a private tour and driver was quite reasonable. Lunch was a bowl of Koshary, and rice pudding for dessert, all for around $1.

    After lunch, we were off to the Egyptian museum. We started off with a discussion about the Rosetta Stone - the real one is located in London, so a replica was displayed at the museum entrance given the historical significance. For the majority of AD history, very little was known about the meaning of the Egyptian artifacts due to a lack of understanding of hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone, found in Luxor, contained the same text in 3 languages, including Greek from the time when Alexander the Great ruled Egypt after the last great Pharaohs. This provided the key to deciphering the meaning of the wonders of ancient Egypt, including their writing and calendar.

    As was mentioned before, most artifacts from their Pharaoh burial sites were stolen over the succeeding millennia. But one site was only partially robbed, and the sarcophagus was completely untouched. In 1920, the tomb of the child Pharaoh Tutankhamun was excavated in what was the greatest archaeological discovery in history. For context, Tutankhamun only ruled for a decade, and was not known as one of the great rulers, but the vast collection is preserved in the museum covering a large part of the second floor. Included in this collection were chairs, chariots, sandals, and games made out of pure gold, precious stones and other exquisite materials. The attention to detail in these artifacts was immaculate, and would be considered high quality even by today's standards. We'd have to keep reminding ourselves that these artifacts are over 3000 years old. The highlights of the collection were the 11 kg golden mask and the multiple sarcophagus shells within which the king laid. It was absolutely unreal to get this much insight into this ancient civilization: their writing, arts, crafts​, calendars, deities, enemies, and everyday life. Even those not into history (Brittany...) are left in awe.

    Next up, fast forward a few millennia to the Islamic history of Egypt. After the Greco-Roman and Byzantine periods, Egypt was "islamized" in the 7th century by crusaders from nearby Saudi Arabia. In 18th century, the French invaded Egypt. The Independence movement was led by Muhammed Ali, who later ruled the country. A great mosque was built in his honor, on the hill overlooking all of Cairo, in an area known as the city of the dead where the extremely poor live atop buried Muslims' tombs; acting as caretakers of the deceased. Our guide Mahmoud is Muslim and was willing to teach us about the history and principles (known as the 5 pillars) of Islam. The mosque itself was quite beautiful, with a large courtyard area, two tall minarets (towers), and a vast interior under the domes decorated with various scriptures from the Qur'an. It also contains the tomb of Muhammed Ali himself. It was quite interesting to learn more about this religion firsthand.

    Our last stop was the market, aka Bazaar, located within the old city walls. We visited another mosque, much older and built in a different architectural style, and walked through the narrow streets and alleys where almost anything could be bought. At this point, after having spent several hours outside in 105 deg F weather, we were happy to settle for some cold waters and get picked up by the van.

    We picked up our luggage, got a ride to our hotel by the airport, and then jumped in the pool just before sunset to wash off the filth and sweat accumulated throughout the day. It was a jam-packed 10 hours of touring around the city, but well worth it for the amazing history.
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  • Day15

    Today was primarily a travel day. We woke up at 6 after only 5 short hours of sleep from the night before. We said our goodbyes to the other divers over breakfast and then took off on our 3 hour transfer to Hurghada airport. The Red Sea was in view almost the whole drive; other than that, there were multiple unfinished buildings that sporadically dotted the desert landscape.

    While there are lanes on Egyptian roads, they're regarded only as suggestions. Our driver spent a lot of time driving in the left lane, and only cutting over to the right lane to avoid oncoming traffic. Fortunately the van's ceilings were high because he rarely slowed for bumps which would send us up in our seats. Nico's phone once flew out of his hand on one such bump. Needless to say, we didn't get to catch up on sleep on the drive.

    When we arrived at the airport, we said goodbye to our fellow diving friends from Denmark and Germany who were dropped off at the international terminal before we were taken to the other terminal. Our terminal was eerily quiet (it was the same one we arrived in) with only a few airport staff and security lingering around. To our surprise, we were denied entry and told that we needed to go to the other terminal by taxi. When we pointed to a sign that read "Free shuttle bus between terminals" he shook his head no and said "taxi!"

    We proceeded to the lower level where we found a taxi driver who wanted to charge us 20€ to get back to the other terminal. As we were walking away, we haggled a lower price down to $5, but it was still too much for the distance. We would have walked, but there was no easy pedestrian access (perhaps by design - taxi drivers need work) and in the 40C heat, it wouldn't have been pleasant. Once aboard the plane, we fell fast asleep on the short flight to Cairo.

    Our drive to the hotel in Cairo was just as exciting, or possibly more so, than the drive earlier that morning because of the additional traffic and lack of lane compliance. We fit between spaces that didn't seem possible and somehow made it safely to the hotel. It reminded us of the taxi ride in Jakarta and we were happy to have arrived at our cocoon in the chaotic city. We had a great view over the Nile river from our room.

    We ventured a short distance out of the hotel for dinner at a quaint little pasta shop in the 26th of July district. Crossing the street was a fun challenge. We also noticed several youths riding bikes without a front tire. It was an early bedtime for an early tour start to see the pyramids the next day.
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  • Day14

    Wake up was at 530 to get an early start on the final day's diving and to return to Port Ghalib. The first dive was called Elphinstone. Sonia told us we were very lucky to catch a calm morning since typically there is a strong current that doesn't allow one to see parts of the reef. We started by going out to the tip of the reef and a little into the blue to see if we could spot sharks. We were unlucky in that aspect and instead zigzagged across the reef. The reef was beautiful and extremely healthy, but also quite crowded. Even with an early wakeup, we were quickly joined by divers from the other moored liveaboards as well as day boats. At one point, multiple divers were surrounding a small turtle for pictures and a couple of them kicked him while passing by; some divers are just hopelessly unaware. One of the divermasters finally took his reg out and released air in front of the turtle so the others wouldn't get a good shot... hopefully leaving the turtle alone.

    After the dive, we cruised over to a bay closer to the port. We were to do two dives in the bay at the request of the captain due to unfavorable winds at the final site. We decided to call it a dive trip after one dive in the bay, and 17 total over 6 days. The visibility was quite bad and we were looking forward to some relaxation on the boat. Even with poor visibility, we were lucky with what we came across on the dive. A huge sea turtle, several lionfish, pipefish, a large porcupinefish, and a protective clown fish that was attempting to keep us away from the anemone.

    At lunch, Sonia presented a cake to celebrate crossing the 100 dive threshold on this trip, for both of us and Mike the Canadian. It was a fun way to celebrate the big milestone and to get excited for many more (#1000!). We sunbathed on the deck and went for a few dips in the water.

    After the rest of the group completed the third dive, we headed back to port. The majority of the group opted for dinner on the boat. Afterwards, we continued to the Wunderbar for drinks. Sonia told us about her life as a dive guide and the trips she arranges for her friends. As a preference, she spends most of her life on the water, and only visits her apartment in Hurghada once or twice a month. Her vibrant spirit, laid-back style and smile proved that true happiness can come from having less when you're doing what you love.

    The pack of dudes, and Brittany, continued to a bar close to the boat where the Thai group had dinner and were well on their way to a late night with shisha and 'tequila' shots. There was a live performer that was covering mainstream songs making it a lively place. After a few beers and a tequila shot or two, Mike found his way to performing for the crowd - it drew more people on the dance floor and made for some good laughs. We stayed until the bar closed at midnight and proceeded to pack to the best of our abilities for our early departure the next morning.

    Looking back at our diving experience in the Red Sea, we were very happy with the abundance of marine life and we're thrilled to see big sharks. The life was noticably less diverse than in the Indo-Pacific coral triangle, though, so there were not as many colors of coral or number of reef fish species as in Palau or Indonesia. Still, it was great to see healthy reefs and an attitude of preservation. At $1000 pp for a week, the liveaboard offered great value for the money. The facilities, service and food were quite good. Comparable trips generally cost 2-3x.

    We chatted with many experienced divers on the boat about potential next destinations. The current frontrunners are the Maldives, Philippines and Galapagos. Hopefully we'll see some of the same people on a boat again. Very soon... Because you know us - we're never still for too long.
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  • Day13

    The fifth dive day got off to an early start since we were due to start the journey back towards the mainland that afternoon. The first dive turned out to be the most memorable of the trip. Shortly after descending into the blue, we noticed that the first group was already photographing below. There were multiple hammerheads circling just below. We happily joined in as it almost got a little too crowded. Two more hammerheads joined the party, and we got within 2-3 meters of these graceful creatures. A Silky shark, which is another species just slightly smaller than the hammers, also started circling. He had a noticeably different swimming style with much more swift and inquisitive movements rather than the slow circling of hammers. This dive was definitely one of our favorites due to how close we got to the sharks.

    The second dive, in the same spot, was a dud as we spent most of the time staring into the blue with no shark in sight. But that's expected when diving with sharks in their natural environment. Out of the 7 shark dives we did at Daedalus, we had amazing, up-close experiences on 2, saw some sharks at distance on 3, and got nothing on 2.

    Dive 3 was back in the anemone garden. Anemone always makes for spectacular pictures due to the vibrant colors and otherworldly shapes of the polyps.

    After last dive in the afternoon, we took off on our overnight journey towards Elphinstone reef. Everyone had a few drinks together on the top deck and bow as we cruised into the sunset.
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  • Day12

    The fourth day of diving was back at Daedalus with the same objective: to spot hammerheads. This day didn't prove to be as successful as we had hoped under the water as we only saw one shark from the distance. We mixed it up for the third dive, opting for a dive location on the island's other side known for an anemone garden and a 15 meter long, egg-shaped coral formation. The wall was abundant with colorful coral and small critters. We were bummed to find out that the other diver group, on the same site 20 mins earlier, saw a school of 10+ hammerhead sharks.

    On the surface, between dives, we popped out of our suite as several people were yelling "shark"! An oceanic whitetip (aka longimanus) was swimming near the boat, surrounded by a group of pilot fish. While slightly smaller than the hammerhead, the oceanic is bigger in girth and typically hunts near the surface. It's a species that makes one think twice before hopping in the water, although attacks on humans are still quite rare.

    After the third dive, we piled in the zodiaks (dinghies) to check out the lighthouse. The part of the island above surface isn't more than 100 meters across, but shallow coral reef extends much further so that a long dock is needed for visiting boats. The lighthouse is manned year-round by two Egyptian Navy officers who make a little money on the side by allowing visitors and selling t-shirts. We climbed to the top for some cool views of the reef and moored liveaboards.
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  • Day11

    After an 11 hour trip through evening and night, we arrived at Deadalus reef. Wake up was at 630 for a 700 dive time. The goal of the dive was to see the hammerhead sharks which congregate around the island. The dive consists of dropping down to 90 ft along the coral wall and then swimming out into the deep blue to wait. Not just a little distance, but far enough so that the reef wall is only barely visible. The ocean floor is several hundred feet deep at this point. And then you wait, patiently scanning all directions for the shadow of a shark. We were unsuccessful on this dive, and after just over 30 mins in the blue, we returned to the wall to gradually shallow up. From afar, the reef wall looks grey and lifeless, but as one approaches, it comes to life as marine life movement and color start to appear.

    The second dive of the day had been a good one the entire trip, and this one didn't disappoint either. Shortly after dropping down to 100 ft, we spotted a hammerhead, and soon several others joined and circled below us. It was surreal to watch the hammerheads for nearly 15 minutes, swimming slowly around us and sometimes playfully turning on their sides. In total, we saw 5 different sharks at once, and everyone was elated upon surfacing.

    The third dive wasn't quite as exciting as the second, but we still spotted a grey reef shark and a hammerhead in the distance. Even when there isn't much to see in the blue, there's still the pretty wall on the ascent.
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  • Day10

    Day 2 was the start of the real diving. We cruised north 7 hours to the Brothers Islands in the middle of the Red Sea. First up was the smaller of the two, Little Brother. The current was quite strong and required a negative entry, in which one enters the water with a fully deflated BCD and descends rapidly in order to not miss the dive site due to the current. At around 30 ft, the reef provided enough protection from the current. The reef was in great shape but we didn't see any big pelagics on this first dive.

    Brittany skipped dive #2, so Nico buddied up with a 5-pack of dudes. He was thrilled to get the first glimpse of a hammerhead shark, one of the larger species (~12 ft long) with the distinctive face, which congregate in the blue near off-shore reefs. The shark was at least 10 meters away, but circled just below the divers for a little while. Seeing hammerheads was one of the goals of this dive trip.

    The third dive started on a wreck at around 100 ft, a transport vessel called the Aida which sank in the 1940s. The stern sits at 180 ft, outside of recreational dive limits, so we could only check out the middle half. From there, we swam along a beautiful coral wall. A juvenile Napoleon wrasse followed us the entire way, opportunistically looking for prey loosened by the bubbles. The wall was unbelievably colorful and abundant with marine life. There was also a scrawled filefish down below, and numerous cornetfish along the way.

    After the third dive, tuneage was bumping on the top deck and the bar was open for cocktail hour. It's great comradery to enjoy some cold beverages while watching the sunset after an accomplished day of diving. The Thai delegation was leading the party train, and had stocked up on hard stuff at the airport duty free, so we enjoyed chatting with them all night long. Probably a little too long since we didn't get the best sleep that night...
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