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Cruising Kuna Yala

Sail along with S/V Rose of Sharon as they leave Portobelo, Panama for the San Blas Islands.  As always, there's never a dull moment!

Dinghy Raft Up in Panama.  © Sharon Kratz, by Sharon Kratz, s/v Rose of Sharon

Reference:  The Panama Cruising Guide, Chapter 7, The San Blas Islands - Eric Bauhaus

We celebrated Christmas in Portobelo, Panama with fifty-plus (number of boaters and their ages) cruisers.  Captain Jack’s Hostel offered a roasted ham and grilled turkey buffet.  We held a gift exchange and I got a nice, new chamois cloth and Joe got a candle that had seen better days.  It was a fun evening and a welcome break from being boat-bound by the worst weather we’d seen in the Caribbean to date.

Rose of Sharon was anchored at 09°33.55´N, 079°39.95´W.  With daily rain, it was difficult to keep air circulating throughout the boat, but even with fans running non-stop, I battled an unprecedented mildew problem.  Every day I scrubbed teak walls and vinyl ceilings with bleach water, eventually using straight bleach, but I couldn’t stay on top of the mildew.  Finally, I gave up.  I told Joe I’d simply clean the boat before we stored her for the season, but meanwhile . . . learn to love the mildew.  I even wrote a little song about it:

I needed vinegar and bleach guns.
I fought the mold and the mold won!

When you make passage from Guatemala or Honduras to Panama, you’ll stop for a rest at one or both of two tiny islands located near Nicaragua but which are Colombian and nowhere near Colombia.  Providencia is nice and has a bank and ATM machines, but San Andres is an eye-opener for the weary cruiser.  It boasts an incredible shopping and hotel district, restaurants galore, and is, in my opinion, one of the best-kept Caribbean tourism secrets in the world.  When Joe and I visited, the upscale department store prices were quite reasonable and the beachfront hotels were tony but affordable.

While we were weathering storms in Portobelo, Panama, still hoping to make passage to Cartagena, Colombia, other cruisers were stopped as well.  We had friends in Providencia and San Andres trying to get to Panama.  Friends in Portobelo were trying to get to Providencia or San Andres as they made passage to Guatemala or the U.S. Cruisers in Cartagena were waiting on a weather window to return to Panama.  One group of cruisers canceled their plans to make passage to Jamaica.  Nobody was moving.

But finally there was a light at the end of the weather tunnel and we thought we might be able to make a short passage.  “At least we could get the fuzz off the anchor and go to Lintón,” said Joe.  “No matter how bad it is, we can handle it for a few hours, right?”

It was a Saturday when we announced our departure on the Portobelo VHF net, but when we checked the weather forecast and looked at the dark, roiling sky, we decided to mix Bloody Marys and play Skip-Bo®. “Tomorrow is supposed to be better,” Joe said.

The next day, the rains returned with a vengeance.  And it rained and stormed, and the mudslide near the fort slid again, blocking the main road, and the foul weather was unstoppable so we played Skip-Bo® for another week.

The morning we left Portobelo, I did not announce our departure.  I said, “We are not leaving Portobelo.  This is not a departure announcement.  However, we might try a little sailing today.”

As soon as we were underway, I got on the radio and sang my favorite lines from Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again,” Rose of Sharon’s official theme song.  My audience responded appreciatively with some “Yee-Haws!” and whoops.  With winds gusting to 20 knots on the nose and waves 10-12, we were surfing but not pounding and we were able to raise some sail but unable to cut the engine.  It was a fabulous sail and our spirits soared as we made the short hop in three hours.  The first blue skies and sunshine we had seen in over a month caused us to be giddy with excitement.

“It’s good to be alive today!” Joe announced on the VHF.

Another cruiser came back with, “Joe, it’s good to be alive every day!”

My dislike of the Lintón anchorage exceeds my dislike of the Portobelo anchorage.  Lintón once was the site of the Panama Yacht Club Annex.  Expats (ex-cruisers) who had been tied to a dock for years lost their homes when the marina was razed.  Most of them dropped anchor in the Lintón anchorage.  Like Portobelo, Lintón is on the mainland, and its waters are crowded with cruisers passing through as well as boats and boaters in varying stages of decay.  The waters are dirty, and the site is too far from the nearest grocery store and ATM to be convenient.  A boat storage called Panamarina is nearby but offers mooring balls, not docks, and no water/electricity.  It is well-managed and nestled in a mangrove clearing.  Many cruisers leave their boats there for a month or two, but it isn’t recommended for much longer unless you’ve made arrangements with someone to air and clean your boat regularly.

We left the turbulent Caribbean and sighed with relief as we slowly made our way into and through the Lintón anchorage, weaving around other boats and shoals.  Joe wanted to drop anchor but I wheedled him into continuing on to Isla Grande, one of my favorite anchor sites.  It’s rolly, and less protected, but clean and the tiny island is alive with Panamanian tourists.  Few cruisers anchor there, making it even more attractive to me.  Its main beach is wall-to-wall humanity every weekend, all year.  There are water taxis and I knew I could hail a ride to the little village where a mini mart sold chicken and potato chips, two of my primary nutritional requirements.

We anchored at 09°37.60´N, 079°34.03´W and welcomed the new year with black beans (I couldn’t find my black-eyed peas) and canned rice-stuffed grape leaves (I had no cabbage nor collard greens).  Once again, the weather became volatile and as we rocked and rolled, at anchor between Isla Grande and the mainland town of La Guaira, we decided we did not have enough cash.  Joe would have to try to catch a bus or a taxi to Sabanitas, where the nearest ATM was located.

Ulu Taxi in Panama.  © Sharon Kratz, SaltySailors.comI called a water taxi and the driver took Joe to La Guaira and arranged for a land-taxi driver to take Joe round-trip for $50; a good price.  They were on the road a few minutes when the driver picked up a hitchhiker who was obviously not Panamanian.

The Polish hitchhiker spoke fluent Spanish, French and English.  Leif Bider was an artist who wanted to establish an art school at Lintón.  When Joe asked him the proposed location of the art school, he said he was hoping to create the school inside his boat, Absolute Absolution.  Joe was stunned.

We’ve been to Lintón several times the last two years, and you can’t help but notice a very large, seemingly abandoned catamaran proclaiming a spiritual ministry in bold lettering on the hull of the boat.  Leif’s story was fascinating.

His art was on display at a New York City gallery and a visitor introduced himself as Poppa Neutrino of the Traveling Neutrinos, a San Antonio-based ministry whose mission was to spread The Word worldwide.  Poppa Neutrino had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a homemade boat; his story was even featured in National Geographic.

The group was now building another boat in New Orleans, a 60´ catamaran made entirely of plywood.  Poppa Neutrino invited the artist to join them on their around-the-world cruise, and, seeing an opportunity of a lifetime, Leif accepted.

Absolute Absolution in Isla Mujeres, Mexico.  © Tami Gilliam, SaltySailors.comThe boat builders modified the vessel’s design, adding windows to allow for more lighting in the artist’s cabin/studio.  The group left New Orleans and crossed the Gulf of Mexico, en route to Isla Mujeres.  It was Leif’s first – and last – ocean voyage.  He said they “brushed” the edges of two hurricanes during their passage, and when they arrived at Isla Mujeres he got off the boat and vowed he would never get back on it or any other boat.  They parted company amicably, and Absolute Absolution made its way along the well-worn cruiser route:  Mexico, Belize, Guatemala’s Rio Dulce, and Honduras, stopping at Lintón, Panama.  And there the missionaries abandoned ship, because by this time the boat’s engine was ruined, the steering was gone and it had sprung some leaks.

Leif was also working his way through Central America by land.  At one point he received a call from Poppa Neutrino, who told him they were in Vermont, building a new boat, and that Leif could have Absolute Absolution.  He journeyed to the Lintón anchorage, where the vessel had come loose from its anchor and bumped a few other boats during a storm.  Cruisers had towed the boat to a site behind the reef and drove stakes into the sandy parts of the reef so the big boat would be relatively secure.  Leif got a kayak and paddled to his new home.

Sadly, the religious organization’s founder, Poppa Neutrino, passed away January of this year.  The group’s website said he had no use for material possessions and often gave others a new start by giving things – like a boat – away.  He sounds like a blessed man.

The day before we departed our anchorage at Isla Grande, we awoke to find another boat anchored too close to our boat.  “Must be French,” Joe sniffed, but then he said he didn’t recognize the vessel’s flag.  “They’re on top of our anchor,” he added.

I wanted to go into town to buy bread, so when the water taxi arrived, I instructed the driver to take me to the other boat first.  There were several men in the cockpit, and their English was about the same level of understandability as my Spanish, but when he asked me how many meters of chain we’d put out, I yelled at Joe, who replied “One-hundred!”  I relayed that information to the cruisers and they rolled their eyes.  “We will leave as soon as we see you preparing to leave,” they said.  Later, I realized Joe and I were talking feet, not meters.  Small wonder they were taken aback!  I asked them their country and they told me they were from Uruguay.  When they asked me our country, I said, “Estados Unidos, pero vivemos en Tejas.” (United States, but we live in Texas.)

People often ask us why our Texas flag flies higher than and is almost as large as our U.S. flag, but these South American cruisers immediately understood.  One of the men laughed and said, “TEXas! That’s another country!”  By the time we awoke the next morning, they had departed.

Our daysail from Isla Grande to the San Blas islands was 40 miles, and we arrived at the West Lemmon Cayes in seven hours, snagging a mooring ball at 09°32.71´N, 078°55.88´W.  We were there two days and discovered the Kuna Indians had raised their prices; the mooring ball was $10/day, not $5, and the ten gallons of gasoline we purchased was $50.

When we left the Lemmon Cayes for the Holandes, the wind and the waves and the weather in general – everything – was in our favor.  We put both sails out, cut the engine and we were, in my opinion, too heeled and overpowered, but Joe was euphoric, coaxing as much speed as he could get out of our happy boat.  The sun was shining and we were thrilled with our day, our lives.  I recall there was a major lurch of the boat in the water that scared me and I begged Joe to “straighten her up” a little bit.  My guess is, that’s when the dinghy painter snapped and we lost our dinghy.  We were almost to the Holandes, having made excellent time under full sail with no engine, when Joe said, “Uh-oh. No dinghy.”  We turned around and spent two hours scanning the horizon and, based on the wind and waves, trying to figure out where she could have drifted.

We announced our loss on the radio net the next day, and other cruisers had ideas about putting the word out to the Kunas.  We figured we might get the dinghy back but the motor and the gas can would be missing, of course.  It was our spare motor and 13 years old and on its last legs anyway.

The following day, on the morning single sideband radio net, we asked our fellow cruisers to put the word out to the locals that we would pay $100 to any Kuna who could find the dinghy.  We could ill-afford the one- or two-thousand-dollars we would have to spend to replace her.

We anchored in an area of the Holandes that cruisers call “The Hot Tub, ” 09°35.111´N, 078°41.617´W.  There were 6 other boats in the anchorage, including a Lifestyles-of-the-Rich-and-Famous vessel that was about 70´ in length; its beam was similar to a catamaran’s in width, but it was a monohull.

Dinghy Raft Up in Panama.  © Sharon Kratz, SaltySailors.comOne of the cruisers organized a dingy raft-up and pitch-in.  Since we were now dinghy-less, our friend and single hander Susan on Wooden Shoe invited Joe and me to ride in her dink.  Fifteen dinghies tied together and we drifted merrily along, drinking cocktails and sharing snacks.  The clean, blue Caribbean water and the equally blue, cloudless sky was a welcome sight to the weather-weary cruisers.

The Hot Tub is surrounded by tiny islands and reefs.  I haven’t done much swimming this year because for the most part, we haven’t been in a place where I could swim but when we are, the January water always feels too cold.  One day, I was reading and drowsing in the cockpit and told Joe, “I’m sleepy and it’s hot.  I’m going for a swim.”  He said he would, too.

I could barely keep from screaming when I hit the frigid water.  Then I did one lap around the boat.  “You aren’t sleepy NOW, are you?” Joe laughed, as we climbed back into the boat.  He showered, but I decided that the Caribbean salt water was medicinal and decided to wear it awhile.

I’d like to say we continued traveling south, but Joe constantly has to remind me that Panama sits east and west, so technically we were traveling east.  We made a quick hop to Soledad Miria, which was backtracking, but Joe was positive someone there would have seen our dinghy.  Most of the Kunas at Soledad Miria only speak Kuna, but I found someone of authority who could speak Spanish and carefully read my hand-written message to them:  Our rope broke and we lost our dinghy.  It is gray and rubber.  We will pay $100 if someone finds it.  The man carefully wrote down my telephone numbers and I returned to our boat.  “Joe, that’s all we can do,” I said.  We decided to anchor the night at another one of my favorite anchorages, Kuanadup, at 09°30.136´N, 078°50.991´W then pushed on to an anchorage we’d never investigated at Isa Puyudas.  What a sweet place to spend the night!

Bauhaus (Panama Cruising Guide) recommends you drop anchor safely at a spot that is 9 meters deep.  Joe continued to struggle with raising the anchor and its new, heavier anchor chain, and sometimes I thought sure he would drop dead of a heart attack before he could get the anchor up.  We are normally slow weighing anchor anyway, as we try to make the boat do the work, but now we were up to 20 minutes to get the anchor off the bottom.  An electric windlass was definitely going to be needed if we intended to cruise again, but I was thinking that next season I wanted to spend at Bocas Del Toro, going nowhere and doing nothing.  And after watching Joe tug and work the anchor off the bottom one morning, then return to the cockpit breathless, I was sure of it.  The old man is getting old.

We decided to try to slip in-between two reefs into 13 feet of water.  As Joe slowly navigated Rose of Sharon, I stood on the bow, giving a running commentary about the bottom.  “Lots of rocks here, now there’s sand, rocks . . . more rocks . . . how deep are we?”

“How deep are the rocks?” Joe responded from the cockpit.

“They’re on the bottom, wise guy, so how deep is that?”  I retorted.

“Thirty feet,” he said.  We edged closer to the island and I watched the bottom rise up to meet us and when I saw a clearing of sand, I yelled, “How deep?  This looks like a good spot!”  Joe scurried to the bow, I returned to the cockpit, and we dropped anchor in thirteen feet of beautiful, blue water, 09°28.375´N, 078°30.953´W.  The charming island appeared to be deserted (translation:  I got naked as soon as possible) but in the distance I saw a small Kuna ulu with three men aboard, so I got into my bathing suit, grabbed my snorkel and jumped overboard into comfortable, cool Caribbean water.  It felt fabulous!  I was ecstatic.  I snorkeled the anchor, paddled all around between the reefs, and was having a lot of fun right up until a 5-foot barracuda moseyed out of a small rock cave.  There was a time I would have simply floated and admired the barracuda, but I’m still suffering some fear from my crocodile attack last year.  I did a Wile E. Coyote back peddle and yelled for Joe to drop the swim ladder.  As I returned to the cockpit I said, “There was a big barracuda.  It scared me!”

“Did it eyeball you or swim your way?”  Joe asked.

“No,” I replied, “but I’ve been skittish since the crocodile thing.”

Joe laughed. “Well, if he had bitten you, we could have taken pictures and compared the bites with the crocodile bite!”

“No, thanks, not ‘til I get my next tetanus shot,” I returned.  The Kuna boat made its way across the tiny bay and the three boys – they were not yet men – offered us a large lobster for two dollars.  We eagerly gave them the two dollars, plus I gave them a Spanish magazine (the isolated Kunas get very excited to see any magazine with pictures) and three packets of animal crackers.  As they tore into their animal crackers, they told us they had been living alone on the island for over a week.  They seemed to be proud of themselves, too.

That night, I slept on the cockpit cushions under the full, shining moon, as content as ever.  The next morning, Joe said he wanted to push on and I protested.  “But you said we could snorkel the reef and explore the island!”

“If the weather or the wind turns, this is not a good place to be,” he said.  “I think we should go to Snug Harbor.”

So we did.

Bauhaus’ suggested anchorage at Snug Harbor is 10-12 meters, and we were hoping to find shallower waters.  I stood on bow and carefully guided Joe between two reefs and we dropped anchor close to the map’s suggestion.  Actually, there are plenty of places to anchor at Snug Harbor, but there are also plenty of reefs and coral heads to avoid.  We anchored in a small mangrove-lined cove at 09°19.685´N, 078°14.963´W, then tried to map it in our Panama Cruising Guide.  As best we could figure, we were somewhere between the tiny islands of Apaidup and Ogumnaga.

New cruisers to the San Blas islands were befuddled by some of the names we had given to the Kuna Islands’ anchorages.  I imagine these names came about because the Kuna island names are so difficult to pronounce, but the newcomers weren’t shy about asking what we meant.  “Where is this Hot Tub you are talking about?” questioned one.  “I’ve looked everywhere but can’t find Isla Elefante,” said another.  Old-timers were happy to translate.

Our snug anchorage at Snug Harbor turned out to be one of the all-time buggiest anchorages of our cruising career.  I have insomnia.  No problem; I wake up at 1:00 a.m. and read until 3:00 a.m.  Not at Snug Harbor.  The noseums and biting bugs swooped in toward my reading light and devoured me until I was scratching and miserable.  Joe didn’t like their presence, but they didn’t attack him like they did me.  He begged me to turn out the light.  Then, he tried to talk me back to sleep.

The next morning, we weighed anchor for the island of Ustupo, dropping at 09°07.754´N, 077°55.765´W.  It was a 6-hour passage and rolly.  In fact, I told Joe that there was “No way” I could make an overnighter in the rolly seas we were experiencing and conditions would have to be near-perfect for me to handle it.  We had friends whose boats had been demasted and suffered some very bad passages to and from Cartagena.  “We have no agenda, no calendar,” I said, “There’s no reason for us to sail in anything other than perfect conditions.”

Except we were running out of booze.

Ustupo, Panama © Sharon Kratz, SaltySailors.comOur first day at Ustupo, we checked into our SSB Net and a cruiser reported he had seen a “gray dinghy” being towed to the island of Nargana by some Kuna Indians.  Joe and I immediately became excited.  Other cruisers promised to check it out.

The next day, when we could have traveled on, we were told that the Kunas seen towing an inflatable dinghy had been loaned the dinghy by a cruiser.  It wasn’t our dinghy.  However, Frederico, the cruisers’ contact on the island of Nargana, had heard a dinghy had been found on a nearby island; he would have to research to discover which island.  We had to stay put.

The weather went south, so to speak, on Day 3 and we could not move on toward Colombia.  Plus, we were still hoping against hope that our dinghy might surface somewhere in Kuna Yala.  But me being me, I had to go to town.

My friend Mary Margaret texted me:  “Ustupo is the hub of the Colombia/Panama cocaine trade,” she wrote.  “BE CAREFUL.”

Joe had become concerned that no Kunas had approached our boat at this anchorage.  “It’s weird here,” he said.  “No one has shown up trying to sell us fish or molas.”  He locked the boat down tight at night, not leaving it as open as we normally do.

As it turned out, it was quite the opposite.  The village was unusually clean, there were several small restaurants, the residents were well-dressed and there was a basketball court.  THAT is civilization, in my book.

Joe knew better than to try to stop me from shopping.  I put one-hundred dollars in a small purse, packed my pepper spray, hand cleaner and bug spray in another bag, then grabbed my huge Winnie the Pooh shopping bag and stood out on the deck of the boat, waving at lone Kuna men paddling their ulus (canoes) to and from the island.  One poor man finally responded.

When he arrived, I explained that I wanted to go to a tienda (store) on the island and could he take me?

Fools rush in.  He said okay, so I climbed down the swim ladder and into his ulu.  As is typical for me, I hadn’t actually thought out the dynamics of traveling in a small dugout canoe.  This one was cleaner than most but as wiggly as it could be.  I’m not proud of it, but I made all the typical white woman noises and shrieks as I settled onto my bench.  My driver’s name was Mathias.  We had an animated conversation, considering both of us had limited knowledge of Spanish language, and when we arrived on the island, I told him I’d pay him two dollars for the ride there and another $2 for the return trip.  He said he’d wait.

I wandered around the dirt alleys of a typical Kuna Yala village until I found what appeared to be a store.  There, I bought Digicel phone cards and evaporated milk.  The village chief appeared and hit me up for $15 for an anchoring fee.  Usually, this is ten dollars and if you only spend one night in an anchorage, you can get away without being fined, but Joe and I are always happy to pay the anchoring fee.  Well, not happy, but compliant.

For everything else on my shopping list, the Kunas told me to walk across the alley to a restaurant.  I bought 30 eggs, twelve pieces of bread, 2 chickens, three pounds of potatoes, 2 pounds of tomatoes, some onions, and 12 bags of potato chips (when on a budget, you have to prioritize . . . potato chips are a priority for me.)

With what money I had left, I bought colas and beer.  I had carefully reserved my water taxi driver’s money.  Accompanied by the village chief and a man who inexplicably spoke terrific English and who said he had friend in Texas (“I know that flag on your boat!” he said.), I made my way through the village to my new amigo’s ulu.

As we returned to Rose of Sharon, I explained that I had seen some military men in town.  “But two of them were very white,” I said, “They did not appear to be from Panama.”

My driver explained to me that they were U.S. Mormons.  I knew there was quite a strong Mormon presence in Central America, but was stunned to discover some young people from the States had become full-time Panamanian citizens.

The weather advisory was bad, but Joe wanted to move on.  “It’s only two hours,” he said.  “We can do ANYTHING for two hours, right?”  So we weighed anchor and left the shelter behind the island and went back outside into the sea, where we got stomped by high waves and winds.  I let Joe know that I was not happy with this particular passage.  I gave him his offshore jacket and abandoned the cockpit, letting him know that I would jump ship and become one of the wives of a village chief rather undergo such a rough ride again.

As we approached the next island we had to navigate between two reefs, so I wanted to go up to the bow and watch for coral heads like I usually do.  I rejoined Joe and had one leg out of the cockpit when he told me to “stay put,” so I kept my butt parked, half-in, half-out of the cockpit.  Then we took a wave that sent us sideways, the closest we’ve ever come to a knockdown.  “Whoooa!” Joe said, as we uprighted.  “That was fun, huh?”  The only good thing about a roll like that is that I am so HAPPY when the boat straightens up again . . .

We anchored in a quiet, serene anchorage off the island of Isla Piños, near the village of Tupbak at 09°00.259´N, 077°45.775´W.

But we were faced with a problem.  There was no cellular connectivity and we couldn’t get our SSB radio to hook up with Winlink®, our email and grib files program, and the next morning, we could not tune into either of our Single Sideband radio Nets.

The two Nets cruisers in this area use are the Southwest Caribbean Net, 6.209.00 at 0815 eastern time and the Panama Connection Net for the San Blas Islands, 8.107.00 at 0830 eastern, daily.  Both provide daily weather reports for the area and weather outlooks as well as follow-up tracking for cruisers underway.

“If we can’t download our weather faxes, and we can’t hear the weather reports, exactly how or when we will know it’s safe to move on down the road?” I asked Joe.

First, he said, “We’ve got two books on weather observation.”  Sure enough, later in the day I saw him checking the wind speed.

“Whatever it is, double it for outside this anchorage,” I commanded.  “That’s exactly what we encountered yesterday.”

Then, he said, “I think it was supposed to start letting up today,” to which I replied, “I thought today was supposed to be a big build day, not a laying down day for the winds and waves!”  Clearly we had interpreted recent weather forecasts quite differently.

Finally, he said, “I’ll have a look at the radio and get back with you.”  He later checked out something he thought might be a problem but it wasn’t and he told me, “Our only problem is propagation.  But we’ll give it a day or two and hey, it’s just a short S/V Rose of Sharon arrives in Columbia.  © Sharon Kratz, SalthySailors.compassage to the next anchorage.  We can do ANYTHING for two or three or four hours, right?”

As I re-stacked the canned goods that had flown through the air in the v-berth then tossed onto the floor, I thought, “Take my husband.  PLEASE.”

We eventually were able to receive and transmit on the SSB and despite the bad travel forecast, we departed Isla Piños for points east.  Traveling from Panama to Colombia is a passage east, not south, but it’s confusing.  “We have to turn a corner before we’ll be traveling south,” Joe reminded me.  The day was sunny, the waves were rolly and ranged from 3-10 feet at irregular intervals.  Winds were only about 10 knots out of the north, giving us a bit of push.  Despite the side-to-side swaying, we were having a good sail, so I suggested to Joe that we should consider pushing on, past the next tucked-in anchorages, stay “on the outside” and go for broke.  Thrilled, he agreed and made the necessary adjustments on his chart plotter.

It was late afternoon when we left the ocean and turned into the anchorage at Sappzurro.  Joe and I lowered our ragged Panama courtesy flag and raised our unused Colombia courtesy flag because, finally, Rose of Sharon was in Colombia!

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