The Sri Lanka Series: Unawatuna (July-August 2015)

Unawatuna is a popular beach destination during peak season, but I found it had a bit of a ‘tired’ vibe. A lot of the restaurants we tried really lacked compared to the delicious Sri Lankan food we had come to expect. The only place I remember fully enjoying the food was at a poorly lit burger place tucked in with all of the other beach restaurants (I think it was this one). It boasted huge burgers with chunky cut chips and a variety of condiments (the way to my heart is condiments). We did discover a prettier beach a couple of minutes east along the coastline (behind the aeroplane playground) that had white sand, no rubbish and glorious warm, blue water. It was definitely worth the tuk tuk trip (or scooter ride) away from the standard tourist hub.

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Safety first?

 

From Unawatuna, we did a day trip to investigate the city of Galle, which is about 20 minutes drive away. We hired a scooter with helmets from our accomodation for AU$8 per day and were hyper vigilant about keeping our distance from everyone else on the road. Our mindset was to just expect everybody to do the most unpredictable thing ever and that seemed to keep us safe. (To read about Sri Lankans and their love of horns, go here.) The scooter meant absolute freedom to travel at our own pace without having to hail and barter with tuk tuk drivers all the way. From the fort’s walls, we spectated the local spectators of a Sri Lanka versus India cricket game at the stadium. Afterwards, we wandered around and stumbled upon markets before hunting down street food for lunch and then devouring ice cream later on. I am not much of a history buff, so though the fort was cool to see, what came next was the highlight of the day for me.

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Galle Fort.

 

After swerving through the frantic traffic of Galle and along the main coastal road for another 15 minutes, we arrived at our next destination: a turtle hatchery! I researched a couple in the area on trip advisor to make sure they seemed legit and were not exploiting the animals for the tourist dollar. The reviews I read were vital for informing which hatchery to choose and which ones to avoid.

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Rhys and I happily handed over the AUS$5 donation at the door and walked in to volunteer some of our time cleaning the tanks and feeding the turtles. It warmed my animal loving heart to see the good work that the hatchery was doing in an effort to protect the turtle’s breeding grounds and help injured (usually due to rubbish, boats or fishing nets) turtles recuperate. I was very conscious of a tourist scam which might result in further animal captivity, but the owner’s authenticity was clear from his first hello. He explained that he had actually inherited the hatchery from his father and was trying his best to keep it operational with help from volunteers. He outlined the story of each of the captive turtles and how every day was spent caring for them, helping hatchlings or releasing the older ones back into the wild. I loved every minute of splashing around in the pools with the bigger turtles, learning about the different species and going crazy over the cuteness of the newly hatched babies. It was a pretty awesome day for any animal lover. Afterwards, we cruised back to Unawatuna as the sun went down and dined on delicious, fresh fish for dinner.

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Aren’t they just the cutest?

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This guy lost his leg in a boating accident.

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Even Rhys couldn’t deny the babies and their cuteness.

 

Another highlight from our time in Unwatauna was our search for the (not so) mysterious Jungle Beach. We had heard about this particular beach and people had told us of the adventure to get there. As it turned out, the track was fairly well signed, but it still seemed to elude us for quite some time. The 45 minute walk included tropical forest, beaches, crossing streams, muddy slopes, spiders and a hilly decline down to the beach itself. This is really one of those cliche times where the journey was more fun than the final destination. The beach is not all that fabulous (there is a restaurant that offer a decent meal with bathrooms and a few cabanas) but the walk was a fun venture through scenic surroundings as we wove our way through people’s backyards and soaked up the nature all around us.

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Finally, it was time to hitch our train from Galle to Colombo in preparation of our departure. We had heard that the trains get packed very quickly, especially in economy class (only a couple of dollars per ticket). We waited with our backpacks at the ready in an attempt to beat some people to the few free seats. Unfortunately, most were much pushier than we were jumping on before the train had even pulled into the station (it was clear it wasn’t their first time) and instead we spent 3 hours taking turns sitting on our bags in the walkway as salesmen stepped over us to sell their refreshments and trinkets. It was a unique and somewhat funny experience, but not necessarily the most comfortable position for the 3 hour journey.

-rocketandramble

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The Maldives: Thulusdhoo II (Aug 2015)

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As we flew through the clouds, snippets of the turquoise water and sandy island atolls confirmed we had made the right decision. After the stress of the previous week, I could not wait to lay on the beach in my bikini, soak up the sunshine and sip on a cocktail until I remembered that the island Rhys and I had chosen was a surf camp on an inhabited island. This meant no bikinis and definitely no alcohol due to the strict Muslim culture. My visions of decadent resort living with manta rays swimming under the glass floor of my private bungalow began to quickly disintegrate.

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No decadent beach bungalows and swimming pools but this did happen, so close enough for me.

As we walked out of airport, we noticed a distinct divide between the type of travellers arriving. There are those that arrive in large groups trailing designer luggage who have booked lavish packages through Maldivian resort companies. They dash quickly from customs to their air-conditioned glass boxes for refreshments often involving cocktails and canapés as they await the arrival of their seaplane so they can be promptly whisked away to their island utopia.  And then there are people like us. We look for directions to the local ferries, then stand in line in the humidity holding our backpacks and boards just hoping to catch the right one for a budget price. We are travellers on the hunt for surf, sea life and adventure trying to get wherever we can for as cheap as we can and that is just the way I like it.

Our ‘fancy’ waiting area.

We paid for the ferry and settled in for the short ride to Male (from Hulhule) in order to catch a connecting ferry to our island of choice Thulusdhoo. All up our trip would take around 2 hours but only cost a couple of dollars. Little did we (or the other Australian couple we met on the ferry going to the same place) know, the ocean had been deemed ‘too rough’ for the ferries and an expensive speedboat was our only other option if we wanted to arrive on the island that day. We tried to wait out Mother Nature in the hope that the last ferry of the day would run if the weather calmed. Meanwhile, we walked around town, purchased some very cheap thongs to replace a plugger blow out, surfed in rough, sloppy waves while watching planes land on the runway as our backdrop and then waited some more until it was confirmed: no ferries would run until tomorrow. Mother Nature had won yet again.

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Our choices were: stay on Male and catch the ferry the next day which meant we would be forfeiting our accommodation or, split the cost of the speedboat between the four of us. We bartered a little and managed to get the US$200 cost down to US$160 but it still hurt the hip-pocket. I tried to console myself with the image of the four of us, bikini and board short clad standing on our sleek, black and white luxury speedboat as the wind swept my hair and we raced across the waves to our destination and the shirtless, handsome captain waved at me. Thirty minutes later we were indeed making our way across the waves but at more of a mild speed in our fairly average fishing boat with two scrawny but smiling locals at the helm as we sat in the back getting splashed in the face with sea water. Finally, we arrived at Thulusdhoo and departed the boat with our luggage ready to try and find the guesthouse we had booked just the night before. Unfortuantely for us, the clouds began to roll in and looked a little angry.

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-rocketandramble

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The Maldives: Thulusdhoo I (Aug 2015)

It wasn’t until the The Great Indian Visa Debacle (read about that shmozzle here) that we seriously considered the Maldives as a possible destination of our around the world trip. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are practically neighbours and after some intense researching, Rhys and I decided it was going to be worth our while booking a new adventure after the stress of missing our flight to India and connecting flight to England.

Funnily enough, we had entertained this idea only a week before while feeling a little silly after a couple of cocktails. The weather forecast began to look bleak for our remaining time in Sri Lanka, so we began daydreaming about alternative plans. As the rain remained (mainly on the plane of Spain?), we fantasised about spending a couple of days on a scenic Maldivian island basking in the warm sun, but after our alcoholic haze wore off, we realised it would be an expensive venture for only a couple of days and not really the best use of our time or money. We hadn’t given Sri Lanka the chance it deserved to impress us. Fortunately, the weather cleared and we enjoyed the rest of our Sri Lankan escapade. Little did we know, the Mystical Fate God’s of Destiny (depending on what your beliefs are) worked their magic and we ended up there anyway. Theose celestial beings do work in mysterious ways.

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This was my  imagined ‘happy place’ while on hold. Turns out it does actually exist.

During The Great Indian Visa Debacle, it became clear that we couldn’t simply change or cancel our flight to England (that would just be TOO easy), so we attempted to forget about the money we were rapidly losing and instead booked a flight to the Male airport on Hulhule with Korean Air for less than AU$200 (Score!). We then secured a connecting flight for seven days later with Qatar Air to England so we could land on our original date and enter the United Kingdom on our working visa as we had hoped. We arrived at the Sri Lankan airport (again) after spending six days hanging around Negombo. We had wasted our week calling customer service representatives, sitting on hold to multiple airlines (while freaking out about our credit running out before we got through with every passing moment) and our travel insurance company trying to get answers and information. After all the stress, I’d say I was truly ready to depart for my impromptu island paradise escape.

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Our future island home.

When people mention the Maldives I tend to conjure images of underwater playgrounds teeming with amazing, aquatic wildlife. The Maldives are an array of stunning islands surrounded by bountiful reefs and recently the government permitted locals to open their own guesthouses removing the elitist resorts-only mantra of previous decades and instead providing a plethora of affordable options for those of us with a more ‘sustainable’ budget. With hundreds of islands to choose from, there are a numerous possibilities for every traveller’s style. Islands inhabited by locals contain schools, mosques and corner stores, whereas others are man-made for the sole purpose of hosting fancy pants 5 star resorts with multiple restaurants, cocktail bars and seaplane airstrips.

There are a variety of ways to plan your Maldivian trip too from surf camps, surf charters, luxury live-aboard boats, to long term stays in local guesthouses or resort hopping by speedboat and seaplane. Due to the misconception about affordability, the Maldives had never really made it onto my possible travel list (which gets longer every day). A flight from Australia is particularly expensive and arduous and I was under the presumption that it was well outside my monetary limit, but if you have an opportunity to visit the Maldives as a stop over or final destination, you won’t regret it. It is truly as stunning as any scene you can imagine.

– rocketandramble

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The Maldives: Thulusdhoo Part III

The thing I noticed first when we stepped off the boat is the unbelievable, turquoise water lapping at the white sandy shores, the second thing I noticed was the rubbish in the water and strewn across the beach. It is such a pity that nature’s beauty can so easily be scarred by mankind’s touch.

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After walking across Thulusdhoo (it isn’t very big) to the surf side and desperately asking people of they had ever heard of our accommodation name, it became clear that there had been a double booking and we were out of luck as an older couple had already moved into our room. Thankfully, a lovely local called Thol (from Isola Maldives) saw us looking a little distressed and took pity on us as the rain began to fall from the clouds overhead. He ushered us into his guesthouse for a cold drink and to help sort out what had happened by ringing the owner of our guesthouse. Our fears were confirmed, we had been double booked but fortunately Thol did have a spare room available and it was the best decision we made. Thol’s new guesthouse has four rooms with ensuites for US$80 a night including all meals. It was a little more expensive than our original place, but by this stage we were thankful for a bed! The facilities were brand new and quite luxurious (if luxury had a slightly tighter budget) and Thol made us feel very comfortable.

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My next surprise came when we were heading out the door in just our swimwear and Thol kindly pulled us aside and explained that because we were on an inhabited island with locals, we would need to cover up a little more unless swimming in order to adhere to the strict Muslim standards. Whoops! I had researched enough to realise that the Maldives is a Muslim country (and the call to prayer which goes off multiple times a day was a friendly reminder) but the pin never dropped that I would not be able to lay on the beach in my bikini and soak up the rays without dishonouring their values. I felt a little ashamed of myself for not observing this simple guideline and hurriedly wrapped myself in a sarong and Rhys put on a t-shirt before we went off exploring. It did turn out that there was a 15 metre strip of beach near the boat moorings that tourists were ‘allowed’ to wear bikinis and board shorts. It is acceptable to freely wear togs and boardies on uninhabited islands (or in resorts) or while out on the reef in a boat. The final shock was when Rhys asked if he could purchase beer anywhere on the island and Thol smiled and explained only if he swam out to the surf charter boats that moor off the points during the day. It was like a mini detox from the Australian lifestyle and I was happy to oblige the conservative dress rule in order to be a respectful traveler. Thulusdhoo is a whole community with almost everything you need (except ATMs which are very scarce, bring plenty of cash) and the locals were friendly and curious. They are only just growing used to seeing tourists regularly appreciating the beautiful island they call home as the industry expands.

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Heading out to the reef for a day of snorkeling on the Isola boat.

 

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Spotted something good.

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Chasing a school of fish.

Our time on Thulusdhoo was mostly spent doing one of four things. Surfing, snorkeling, relaxing or eating. There are two close proximity surf spots just off Thulusdhoo. Many of the surf breaks are named after the island’s main industry. So ‘Cokes’ is a right hander with a quick take off which works best with a bigger swell. It is named after the Coke factory that still functions on the island. They encourage recycled bottles and use desalinated water in their recipe. A short boat ride away (around US$10) or a decent paddle across a channel is ‘Chickens’ a slower, but fun left-hander which has long runs and an easy paddle out. Finally, a couple of islands away is ‘Jailbreaks’ named after the old jail, which is not in use and now hosts a unique accommodation experience instead. Rhys surfed both breaks most days depending on the tide and conditions or until his arms gave up. I spent my days reading, writing, relaxing or exploring.

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Exploring ‘Chickens’.

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The bridge to ‘Cokes’.

Isola Maldives organised and ran snorkeling trips so we booked with them the two times we went. The trip cost us US$15 per person and included multiple locations and underwater GoPro footage of us. The first location was only a short distance from our island and offered a stunning underwater display.  ‘Coral Garden’ boasts an array of sea life including huge schools of colourful fish, eels and turtles.

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Can you spot ‘Terry’ the turtle?

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Observing ‘Terry’ during our manta ray hunt.

One of the other spots we tried was a little further away just off one of the resort islands and I even got to glimpse two reef sharks while snorkeling there which was pretty exciting, albeit a little terrifying. I was pretty keen to see if we could find a manta ray even though it was out of season. It is a big selling ticket of the Maldives with video footage and images everywhere. Thol and his crew tried hard to help me out by stopping in known manta spots in deeper water, but to no avail unfortunately. I guess I will just have to go back when it is season to get my manta ray fix next year.

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Working the camera.

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I’m a merMAN, not a mermaid.

 

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-rocketandramble

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Tangent Time: The Great Indian Visa Debacle (August 2015)

Our last day in Sri Lanka was spent relaxing in Negombo and preparing for our next flight to Mumbai. My pinterest-ing was out of control and I was super excited about our trip to India. I was ready for the country of contrasts, colour and spice. We had booked a two week trip around the Rajasthan area seeing many of the sights India has to offer. I had reservations about the hygiene and unwanted attention from Indian men, but other than that I was really looking forward to my exploring the cities and getting a taste of Indian life. We decided on a  tour with Gecko in order to make our trip as hassle free as possible thinking we would go back another time to explore on our own once we were feeling a little more comfortable.

We intended to stay our last night with Patrick in his quaint guesthouse. We spent the evening having  a few drinks and eating our weight in pasta from the Rodeo Pub. After dinner and a few drinks, I began to feel a little nauseous and put it down to anxiety about our very early flight ( we had to be at the airport just after 4am) to New Delhi via Mumbai/Bombay the next day. We decided to call it a night and get a good night’s sleep. We arrived home as the feeling in my stomach worsened and I began to cross off what I had eaten that day suspecting food poisoning.  I packed my backpack ready for the morning and we organised for Patrick to take us in his tuk tuk to the airport. That night as Rhys slept soundly beside me, I deteriorated getting up and down through the night with a fever, hot and cold sweats, diarrhoea and vomiting. I know that isn’t the most flattering image. I’ve had traveller’s tummy before (in Indonesia) I knew it would all be over soon enough and I just had to try and keep my fever down and my fluids up, but alas it was not a restful sleep.

As I watched the clock tick by, I eventually decided I might as well get up and shower before our alarm went off and Rhys woke up. He had stirred a few times during the night to see if I needed help, but I tried not to wake him as I figured it wasn’t much good both of us being zombies the next day. I felt a little better after my shower and even managed to slowly eat half a croissant as we piled our bags into the (well overloaded) tuk tuk with the surfboards strapped on top. As we arrived at the airport, we said out goodbyes to Patrick and headed into the mostly deserted airport. We exchanged the last of our Sri Lankan money into Indian on our way past the money exchanges offices and then we checked our baggage in with Sri Lankan airlines. We sat in the cafeteria as my condition started to intensify again before making our way (slowly) to the gate to await our flight. I was trying my best not to look too sick just in case they didn’t let me on the plane, choosing to discreetly make my way to the bathroom (very quickly) whenever the urge to throw up began at the back of my throat (I am sorry so many of my stories involve vomit). I couldn’t keep the croissant down as we went through the final security check point and entered the gate lounge to wait. Finally, our flight was called and we lined up ready to show our passports and ticket for the final boarding just as the male flight attendant began to look a little puzzled.

As he flicked through our passport pages, he asked for our Indian visas. We tried to explain that we were just obtaining a tourist visa on arrival but had completed the forms (digitally) to show at the other end to save time. I showed him my phone with the completed form in my emails. In his broken English, he tried to explain that what we had was not sufficient and that we needed to have a different visa. The worry and panic began to overtake the sick feeling in my stomach as he told us to move out of the line and sit down to await our fate.

At closer inspection of the email (that we had filled out late at night, the night before we left for Sri Lanka after a few too many celebratory drinks) we saw that indeed it was not an etourist visa form, but a digital form  that needed to be sent away and approved by the Indian embassy. As we realised our mistake, we tried to communicate that we could perhaps just scrap the initial form and instead apply for a tourist visa on arrival forgetting that we had filled out anything else. Unfortunately, for reasons that were lost in translation, this did not seem to be an option.

The attendant just kept telling us to sit down and wait while they got the rest of the passengers on board. We sat anxiously for another 10 minutes while the staff discussed options amongst themselves telling us to just “sit and wait please” every time we tried to ask about what was happening. Everyone had boarded the plane and we still weren’t getting any explanations about whether we were going to make the flight or not. By this time I had spewed a few more times into my plastic bag while Rhys began to get agitated about the situation and lack of information. They had taken our passports away and not returned them and our bags were still on the plane. We tried to ask questions but the language barrier seemed to cloud any clear communication. No one would give us a straight answer and the longer we waited the more tense it became.

Eventually, we saw our backpacks come off the plane and then we had to worry about whether they had remembered our surfboard bag too. Finally, an attendant confirmed that all our bags were together and to follow him. He had our passports and told us to sit in a chair just near the departing gate  entrance while a security guard completed some paperwork. After an hour and a half of sitting and waiting while phone calls were made to superiors and the right questions were asked. It still seemed to us that no one knew what to do or what the procedure was to reject us from the airport. A different man came and escorted us to another section of the airport (not official, just outside s tea shop. Go figure.) and told us to wait again. During this time, I needed to vomit a few more times rushing frantically to find the nearest bathroom as I had now lost my bearings, only just making it to a shop and asking hurriedly for a plastic bag while the woman looked at me with confusion and then disgust as I threw up in front of her. Another hour passed and we were led back to the main airport entrance where our bags were screened again before they pushed us out a side door and into the hot, humid Sri Lankan air. At 4:30am, we had arrived airport only to find ourselves standing in the same position 5 hours later. We had our bags but no idea of what to do next (having never been rejected from an airport before) and we were still in a state of shock about what had happened hoping it was all a bad dream. We decided to go back to our accommodation to access the wifi and try and figure out what our options were. The worst part was we knew we had a connecting flight out of India to England in two weeks time that we would miss unless we could organise an alternative.

We hailed a cab, knowing how much we should pay and agreed on a price of 1000 rupees. Once loaded up and driving, the cabbie started trying to bargain for a higher price. In our exhaustion, we argued back and probably got a little too angry at him trying to haggle with us after agreeing on a price already. The cabbie thought we were newbies fresh off the plane that he could bully into paying more, when in reality this was our third airport trip and we were in no mood to take any of his shit. It got to the point where we had only been driving for a couple of minutes but Rhys and I were demanding he take us back if he wouldn’t accept the agreed price. The cabbie refused and then proceeded to lock the doors, keeping us essentially captive customers. The silence and our anger filled every crevice in the small van and the cabbie did not say another word until we arrived at our destination. We got out and gave him the 1000 rupees, but he wouldn’t accept it and kept asking for more. In the end, we refused to pay on principle and after such a hectic morning as well as being sick, I couldn’t deal with anyone anymore choosing to retreat to the air-conditioned room for some solace as the cabbie drove away in a huff.

In hindsight, I still feel that the cab driver tried to take advantage of us but after it was all over, I realised we were stressing over a small amount of money that didn’t really matter to us. It was all about the principle of agreeing on a deal for me. Thankfully, Patrick welcomed us back a little confused, but with open arms. We explained what happened as he made us tea and organised a fresh room for us. After a few hours of researching, numerous phone calls to Web Jet, Sri Lankan Airlines and World Nomads, we were running out of options and nobody seemed to want to help.

We even made a special trip to the Indian embassy in Colombo in an attempt to get the visa approval. We spent a whole day organising our visa paperwork, getting passport photos taken, photocopying documents and paying to have the forms completed by some guy in a makeshift office across the street from the official embassy. We waited in line to submit it all only to have the lady tell us that we would not be able to apply for a new Indian visa and have it approved and returned before our London flight as they had to send our passports away and it can take up to 10 days.

Web Jet (who we had booked all of our flights through) told us the flights couldn’t be changed or cancelled from their end and to call Sri Lankan Airlines. Sri Lankan airlines told us that Web Jet booked the flights and therefore they couldn’t change or cancel our flights and our travel insurance told us they would not cover the cost of any new flights or accommodation as having the correct visa was our responsibility. So we were out of luck, couldn’t change or cancel our flights or make it to India in time to catch our connecting flight to London. We also couldn’t just fly earlier to London as our working visas didn’t begin until the 15th of August meaning we would have to enter on a tourist visa and then leave the country and re-enter on our working visas. Talk about a messy situation! So we did what any sane person in our situation would do… we booked flights to the Maldives in an attempt to forget our woes.

-rocketandramble

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