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Stories about Living / Cruising on a Boat

Exploring the Atlantic Coast of Panama, Part 5

Hannah visits her Grandparents for lots of Panamanian adventures.

Upscale Kuna Kandy Eaterby Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon

When I forget how talented God is, I look to the sea.

-- Whoopi Goldberg

A cruiser told me to get ready for the traffic jam on I-Caribbean. He said because of the current state of financial affairs in the U.S., laid-off and forced-out of work armchair cruisers are leaving their docks for points south in record numbers. I don’t know where he got his data but it makes sense. Many of the cruisers we meet have two quests: traveling now and researching where to live when they stop traveling.

U.S. cruisers are not the only group flocking to the country of Panama in great numbers. The cost of living, amenities, relatively stable government and the U.S. dollar currency lend themselves to a great retirement opportunity for many. Seeking another country for the good life where your income will stretch further is not a new concept, and these U.S. and European immigrants are finding Panama a good place to call home.

For the last six years, International Living magazine has ranked Panama number one in its Global Retirement index. Panama does not tax foreign earned income or interest income.

Last year, there was such a thing as a Mariner’s Visa for cruisers who planned to be in Panama more than 90 days. It was cheap, and easy, but at this time it is not available. However, we met more and more cruisers who had obtained a Pensionado Visa and the benefits were notable; including terrific discounts at hotels and even some savings on airfare. As Joe and I prepared to end our cruising season and return to the U.S. we decided to pursue some of the required paperwork so we could begin the application process for the Pensionado Visa in 2010.

I guess I can’t see anything beyond cruising the San Blas Islands for the rest of my life. How could any other place be better? Joe and I sat in the cockpit one evening, watching the sun set behind the palm trees on a nearby clean, white-sand beach and I said, “This is it. This is what we’ve been looking for since 2004.”

The only thing that could possibly make life better was if our family lived nearby. But they are working and building their own lives and have their own dreams so the next-best thing is to have the grandkids visit us.

As it turns out, this took some doing. I began campaigning when Hannah was 6 years old. “Let her fly down to us,” I would beg our daughter.

“Are you crazy?” she would respond.

However, between my pressure and the pressure she was getting from our granddaughter, she finally consented. I was allowed to book the flight, pay the unescorted minor fee and fly my Indiana granddaughter to Panama City via Houston on Continental Airlines.

4-wheelingI left Joe with the boat and made my solo trip to Panama City by 4x4, a trip I enjoy because the Panama countryside and jungle vistas are beautiful and crossing a small but fast-flowing river by car is just dangerous enough to be interesting.

Here at lastHannah and her escort appeared soon after touch-down and Hannah was happy to be in Panama and I was relieved she’d arrived safely. Joe and I had a mantra for Hannah’s visit: “Nothing can happen to the kid on our watch.” We were determined she would not suffer one single mosquito bite, any measure of sunburn and after our initial hugs I coated her with Deep Woods Off®. My friend Signe, who had visited in March 2009, was still suffering from noseum and sand flea bites three months later. In Panama, the bug bites can leave scars.

I had reserved, for her first night in Panama, a hotel that normally is beyond my budget. The Riande Hotel is adjacent to the Panama City International Airport. It has a lovely pool, well appointed rooms, excellent restaurant and wifi available in the restaurant. Guests bring their laptops to the restaurant and spend entire days working or communicating online while enjoying coffee or refreshing iced tea.

Hannah and I went directly to the pool where we caught up on current events and marveled at our toenails, which we had, without each other’s knowledge, painted and decorated almost identically. She fell asleep during supper.

The next morning, I needed to make a run to the airport to withdraw my daily $200 from the ATM machine. Hannah was happy watching the television in Spanish so I instructed her not to open the door to anyone but me, waited until I heard her latch it, then rushed to the lobby to catch the courtesy shuttle to the airport. As I jumped into the van, one of the hotel porters rushed up behind me and demanded, “Where is your granddaughter?!” My gosh, he thought I was some kind of white slaver or something, and I stumbled over my words. “She’s in the room; she knows not to open the door!” I exclaimed. He nodded and frowned and walked back into the lobby.

Later, as Hannah and I awaited the arrival of our 4x4 driver, I saw the porter and went to chat with him. He was a handsome Jamaican, in his early 50s, but his white hair made him look slightly older. When Hannah joined us, I said, “Hannah, this is James. I wanted to be his girlfriend, but he says I’m too old for him.” James and I both laughed.

The 4x4 journey to Cartí was not good from the get-go. Our driver, Manuel, loaded our bags into the car; there was a young couple inside with a small boy. Plenty of room. He then drove to a Pio Pio chicken restaurant, where he held a lengthy conference with a young woman who was standing on the curb holding a baby. Then he went inside. After ten minutes, all of us in the car began looking at each other with raised eyebrows. I turned to Hannah. “You stay here with the bags and I’ll get us some chicken for supper.”

When I entered the restaurant, there sat Manuel in a corner, polishing off a meal, drinking a soda and chatting on his cellphone. He waved. I ordered my chicken and returned to the car. The aroma filled the car and Hannah and I decided we might need one piece for now.

More minutes passed and then a smaller 4x4 pulled up next to us and the driver and a friend began loading our bags into the smaller car. Manuel told me we were switching cars and drivers. Hannah and I and the young family moved to the other 4x4 where we were joined by the patient young woman and her baby who had stood on the curb all this time. Now, we were crowded. The woman and baby got in the front seat with the driver, the friend and the husband and young boy perched on top of the luggage and the back seat was packed with me, Hannah, the young woman and two backpacks. Nobody was happy but nobody complained because it’s Central America. Complaints and arguments require too much energy and accomplish nothing.

flat tireHannah was fine right up until we had a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. She got out of the 4x4, looked up and down the rocky dirt road, looked at the jungle pressing in on us from both sides of the road, looked at the dead tire and said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

She and I walked up the road a-ways one way, then walked down the road the other way while the men dealt with the flat tire. I made a mental note to SAY SOMETHING to Manuel next time but I was still not frustrated enough to take one of the puddle-jumper planes from the San Blas to Panama City.

The San Blas islands have several runways built by the U.S. during WWII, pitted and growing grass, and all of the runways are so short that if the pilot overshoots, you have to sink or swim. None of the San Blas airports weigh what goes on the plane, something that seems like a real pain to most travelers but you realize how important it is once you don’t have it.

We piled back inside the 4x4 and continued to Cartí without incident. I had left a message for Joe to pick us up at 1:00 p.m. and it was now 3:00 p.m. and he was nowhere in sight. I paid two men to haul our luggage and provisions to the dock where a panga driver encouraged us to board his boat, but how could I? I had no idea where Rose of Sharon was anchored, so couldn’t give him directions anyway. Hannah and I sprawled on the dock. I sprayed her with insect repellent until she gagged. The heat was intense and I worried about her fair skin burning under the relentless sun. No shade. No wisp of wind. No longer worried about her being kidnapped – and she would have left me for any kidnapper with air conditioning at this point – I returned to the airport terminal and purchased two bottles of cold water.

Almost an hour into our wait we saw Joe motoring our way in the dinghy. He said he had made arrangements for a water taxi to bring us to the boat, but apparently no one communicated that to me. I was too exhausted and glad to see him to complain. Another water taxi pulled into the dock and we loaded our bags and ourselves into the boat along with several mainland workers returning to their islands. At this point, Hannah had a slightly glazed look and I thought she might have a meltdown any minute.

When we arrived at the Rose of Sharon, Joe helped me into the boat with a welcoming glass of wine and a gift set of genuine Kuna earrings. Smart man! Hannah passed out shortly after eating a few pieces of chicken. She was fully clothed and as I watched her breathing slow and her tired face relax in sleep, I wondered if this cruising life is simply too difficult for people who live in the real world.

seasickThe next day, we departed Cartí for the West Lemmons, dropping anchor at 09°32.75´N, 078°52.63´W. It was a very short trip and our granddaughter got seasick. But as soon as we dropped anchor and she saw the beautiful islands and turquoise blue water, she was off and running! I hardly ever saw her anywhere but in the water the remainder of her stay. I didn’t think anyone could out-distance me for time spent swimming, floating and snorkeling, but this nine-year-old wore me out! She swam until forced to rejoin us for meals, woke up and swam before breakfast, swam to and from islands, snorkeled until I thought her mask might actually fuse into her face, and the complexities of not having television, refrigerated foods, or eating more salad and fruit than she had ever eaten in one week no longer posed problems for her. I watched her evolve from an anxious American girl into a mellow, Caribbean Kid.

More Driving LessonsJoe taught her how to drive the dinghy and drive the boat. During the anchoring process, she helped relay directions from the bow to the cockpit when Joe whispered, “Reverse,” and I shouted, “What?!” Often, she would ask what would happen to us when she left – she couldn’t imagine how we managed to weigh anchor and set the anchor without her translations. “We just do it,” I said vaguely. “He whispers, I shout, and somehow we get it done.”

We held Skip-Bo tournaments and Uno tournaments, we read our books shoulder-to-shoulder in the afternoons, sometimes dozing and sometimes pausing our reading to discuss our respective books’ plots.

She became more than a guest onboard; she became crew. I cherished every moment she was with us.

Okay, not every moment. I scheduled an ambitious river safari and jungle hike to a small waterfall that I hoped our granddaughter would find exciting and adventurous. I was assured that the hike through the jungle would take about 20 minutes one way, so I figured with my new, skinnier body and newfound energy that I could make the hike with no problem.

Jungle safariWe were picked up at our boat by the legendary mola-maker, Lisa, and her driver. I had packed a lunch for me, Hannah and Joe, as well as several bottles of drinking water, insect repellent, and some treats for the kids.

We left the Caribbean and entered the Rio Sidra, where we had to stop and carry our boat part of the way across a bar at the mouth of the river. It was fun and we were in high spirits.

HikersAs we traveled upriver, we scanned the shoreline for crocodiles and were disappointed not to see any. Finally, we reached a bank were the river shallowed and we climbed up slippery mud slopes to our jungle trail. Our driver used his machete to cut the plants away from the path as we walked slowly and steadily through the beautiful rainforest. We stopped at two Kuna cemeteries where Lisa’s family lay buried, and she was upset that her mother’s grave had suffered some erosion. She said she had paid extra money to have her mother buried in an area that would not suffer the effects of the rainy season. While she worked to break up the dirt atop her mother’s grave so she could re-sod it, the driver handed us walking sticks. That should have been my first clue that our walk had just begun. I thought it was nearly ended.

The adventure was scheduled by Neil and Kathy of S/V Attitude, the cruisers we had met at the Rio Chargres. We’d had a wonderful Easter day and were looking forward to seeing them again. Their grandson was visiting too. Now, here’s what you need to know about Neil and Kathy Farley of S/V Attitude. They have perfect bodies. They kayak, swim, mountain climb, hike, and I don’t know what else and are the only people I’ve ever met who actually look good in skimpy bathing suits. There is no ounce of fat anywhere and they are toned, tanned and ready for action. The hike, for them, would have taken 20 minutes because they could have jogged the entire time. And the only way it would take 20 minutes was if you could sprint, because it was five miles, uphill, and included some rock climbing and mud sliding. After the first hour, I was shot.

I was also holding everyone up because I had to stop and gasp every ten minutes. But they were kind. As we trudged along, perspiration dripped down my forehead and stung my eyes. Neil praised me and offered many encouraging words but I could tell he was concerned. Joe kept saying, “You know, this time last year you would never have made it this far.” Our leader, Lisa, fingered the strong roots of plants that could hold my weight (being under 200 pounds for the first time in years now did not seem like enough lost weight). Lisa would tug a plant with secure roots and strong leaves, bend it toward me and motion me to grab it to assist in pulling myself up steep, muddy inclines. I hugged damp trees and slippery boulders to help myself climb down. There was no place to sit and rest except the muddy jungle floor and I didn’t dare do that – once down, I was not sure I could make it back up. At one point, Lisa waved her hand in the air, indicating the abundance and variety of plants in the area and said that this part of the mountain was “owned” by the medicine man. He used the flowers, roots, and plants for medicines for the tribe. “Where’s the Percocet® tree?” I asked weakly.

It was at about this point that I realized we were climbing a mountain. The word “mountain” had not been used to describe this safari. Words like, “waterfall,” “swimming” and “jungle” had been used. As I marched silently on the muddy path, I thought about why I was doing this. This wasn’t about showing my granddaughter a good time. I had missed Guatemala so much that I thought I could recapture the feeling of living on a jungle river! That was why I scheduled this gosh-awful endurance test, I decided, as I drank most of our bottled water. I need to return to Guatemala; forget Panama!

Our granddaughter was doing fine. Everyone was doing fine except me. While I continued to put one foot after the other and make slow progress, I pondered many things, including how to fake a heart attack so I could get hauled out by chopper. Better not mess with your karma, I decided. You might have a real heart attack.

After two hours of hiking steadily up the mountain, we entered a clearing and there it was. We were high above a series of small waterfalls cascading into small pools of black, cold water. It looked like heaven.

There were two ways to enter the waters: the easy way was to climb down a rocky slope and enter the largest pool. The hard way was to jump off a cliff. The trick about the cliff jumping was you had to clear some boulders directly under the ledge; if you jumped short you would land on the rocks and then the best-case scenario would be broken bones. Death was another option to walking 5 miles back to our boat, but thankfully, I wasn’t that desperate.

Lisa jumped in after explaining how to leap as far away from the wall as possible. The boat driver jumped in. Hannah crept slowly toward the ledge, looked down then eased back toward the safety of solid ground. I inched toward the ledge and when Lisa looked up and saw me she shouted and motioned furiously for me not to jump. I indicated that I was going to jump and she was horrified. She didn’t think I had the strength to walk, let alone jump wide off a cliff into a black pool.

The ledge was slimy and slippery and I realized there would only be one chance to make the necessary leap and it had to be a good one. I got as close to the edge as I could without falling, gave a mighty push of my legs and I was airborne. As I descended, I saw Lisa’s eyes were wide with terror and she had clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle the scream that would surely emanate when I hit the rocks. Then I plunged into cold, welcoming water, allowing it to envelope me, caress my aching body and soothe my spirit as only submersion can do. When I resurfaced, I saw Lisa was still shell-shocked, mouth agape and I looked above at my cheering friends and family.

This jungle safari wasn’t such a bad idea, I decided. I swam to our Lisa and said, “I can do air and water. It’s land I have problems with.” She nodded silently and contemplatively and I imagine was going to revise the standard description of the Rio Sidra Safari as soon as she returned home.

One by one, our tiny group jumped off the ledge. Hannah was reassured by my jump; in fact, everyone was reassured because if I could do it, anyone could do it! Kathy refused to make the leap though, and carefully climbed down the slippery rocks and eased into the pool. Joe’s jump was the scariest. As he leapt from the cliff, he angled his body backwards, his head missing the rocks by inches. I swam to him and said quietly, “Don’t jump again, please.”

Rio SidraHannah and I were now in our natural element, so we splashed and cavorted in the frigid water, and when refreshed began easing upward, fighting the strong downstream current. I finally worked my way into an isolated pool where torrents of water spilled down the rock wall edges and served as a Jacuzzi. I arranged my aching back, arms and legs so they would receive a good pounding and the resultant massage was God-given, I was sure.

Finally, we made our way back up to the land and opened our backpacks for lunch. I had made peanut butter and honey tortillas; enough to share. They were gone in an instant. When Lisa indicated it was time to head back, I reconsidered my fake heart attack scheme. “This walk will be easier,” she assured me. “We will go down the river bed.”

Rainforest treasureIt wasn’t that much easier. The river bed bottom was lined with smooth, rounded rocks, most of them slick with algae. The trick this time would be not breaking an ankle. I held my walking stick in a death grip. After body surfing down a small waterfall (What fun!), we needed to climb one set of high boulders and I accomplished this with Neil gripping the top of my torso and tugging while Joe shoved from behind. It was clumsy, but it worked.

A gentle rain began then increased and Lisa looked worried. She sent word back (yes, I was lagging far behind again) that if the rain continued, the river would rise. “Is that a good thing?” I asked Neil.

“That’s a very bad thing,” Neil replied. I’ve seen a few Indiana Jones movies, and being swept away by rushing water toward the river’s mouth didn’t seem like such a bad thing compared to hiking the river bed, but I tried to pick up my pace.

Our granddaughter walked back to join me and helped me over some rough spots, placing her arm around my waist to steady me. “You’re such a good girl,” I said. “Will you take care of me when I am old and feeble?” She hesitated.

“You’re not that old,” she replied. I could tell she thought I was already the feeble part.

Joe slipped but caught himself before he fell. Hannah took one bad spill, banging her head against a rock. We lost count how many times I fell into the water and slammed myself against the rocks, bruising this or that every fall. “You’re going to have some very achy muscles tomorrow!” Neil called back cheerfully. As it turns out, the only real injury was a blister on my right hand from clutching the walking stick. And of course, the bruises, which in the cruising world are merit badges to be shown with pride.

When Lisa stopped and motioned us to climb yet another steep, muddy wall, I thought I might swoon. “But I thought we would walk in the water to the boat,” I protested. No, she indicated, we had to re-enter the jungle.

Once again she climbed to a spot and showed me where I could wedge one foot and grab a plant. Even with the leverage, Joe had to shove from behind to help me up. We were back on land, and I was miserable. The mosquitoes and bugs were relentless, and I sprayed my head until I thought I might pass out from the fumes. Some kind of prickly, sticky plant grabbed my left shoulder and ripped the skin down my back. I drank the rest of the water and had to ask Kathy for some of hers.

But every now and then, the wonderful smells of the jungle would capture my attention. I couldn’t babble on about it out loud, which is what I would have done if I felt normal, but I could sense it and think about it. You can smell green, you really can. It’s crispy and clean and slightly sweet. Eucalyptus, flowers, honeyed plants and chlorophyll greens filled the air with exciting aromas and I did appreciate them.

When we approached the river and I finally saw our small boat, I shouted, “Gracias, Dio! It’s the rio!”

The descent from the last ledge to the riverbed brought my knee up to my chin, but I did it almost gracefully, because Neil had a firm grasp of my butt and Joe had a grip on my shoulders.

Later, as I composed our daily single sideband email to family, the subject line for my message was a phrase I learned from my daddy: “It damn near kilt me.” I signed it, “Happy to be alive, Sharon.”

Coco BanderasHannah wanted to snorkel the Coco Banderas because she liked the name. Cocoa is a wonderful thing for a nine-year-old. I wanted to go to Coco Banderas because one of the islands there has a driftwood table and fire pit; we could make S’Mores! Hannah left Joe to the firebuilding task and walked to the beach, entered the ocean and swam away. I did not nag her not to go too far, I simply watched her as the sun began its descent into the ocean to join her for a swim.

Every day, Hannah and I snorkeled a different spot. Sometimes Joe snorkeled with us, but mainly he stayed in the dinghy, keeping a watchful eye on our snorkels as we meandered our way through delightful coral beds. I gave Hannah my Coral Reef booklet and every evening, we searched through it, checking off the corals we’d seen. Sometimes she became so excited, I thought her head would revolve as she jerked around, exclaiming and pointing at the neon yellows and blue of the fish. She also became more of a diver than a surface snorkeler, plunging into the ocean as deep as she could, deeper than I could follow, and then slowly returning to the surface. The kid is a natural.

One snorkel, we entered the most incredible field of sand dollars I have ever seen. My father’s memorial service is scheduled for Thanksgiving 2009 and as part of the ceremony, I planned to break a sand dollar on his and my mother’s headstone so the angels could “fly away.” The legend of the sand dollar was meaningful for my mother and she never tired of reciting it to rapt audiences of Brownie Girl Scouts.

There’s a lovely little legend
that I would like to tell,
of the birth and death of Jesus,
found in this lowly shell.


If you examine closely,
you’ll see that you find here,
four nail holes and a fifth one,
made by a Roman’s spear.


On one side the Easter lily,
its center is the star,
that appeared unto the shepherds
and led them from afar.


The Christmas poinsettia
etched on the other side,
reminds us of His birthday,
our happy Christmastide.


Now break the center open,
and here you will release,
the five white doves awaiting,
to spread Good Will and Peace.


This simple little symbol,
Christ left for you and me,
to help us spread His Gospel,
through all Eternity.


-- Author Unknown

I wondered if my mom, who never saw waters beyond the Gulf of Mexico, was with me that day as I swam a sand dollar field in the Caribbean. It occurred to me that I could harvest enough sand dollars for everyone at the funeral service to have a momento, but I could not bear to remove them from their resting place.

The day we saw a huge manta ray pass slowly in graceful flight, Hannah and I were beside our selves with joy. It was so wonderful to have someone snorkeling with me who not only appreciated but felt almost a part of the dramatic life under the water. This apple didn’t fall far from my tree.

Kuna candy seekersMagazines are highly prizedThe Kuna Yala people are thrilled with gifts of candy and magazines, makeup, nail polish, pencils and erasers . . . San Blas cruisers traditionally offer something to visiting natives who are selling fish or molas but at Soledad Miria, where we went to fill our water tank, we caused a near riot when we began handing out magazines and candy. Hannah and Joe gave almost all of our candy to the hordes of natives. Even Hannah was showing a bit of concern that we might be mobbed for lollipops. The adult Kuna natives love the magazines; Hannah’s other grandmother sent a few old Better Homes and Gardens and I watched with amusement as the Kuna men studied the home decorating tips and recipe photos. Comic books were a big hit, too. Hannah’s dad donated some old Batman comic books and Hannah discovered she liked reading the stories, so she held onto them until the last minute, making sure she’d read them before handing them to the eager, outstretched hands.

All too soon, it was time for her to go home. As we made arrangements to travel to Panama City, Joe encouraged me to plan my return to the San Blas with another Texas couple, Sandy and Cheri of S/V Namasté (Corpus Christi). “They are leaving a day sooner than I want to leave,” I argued. “I have to go shopping! I look like a rag bag.”

Joe radioed Sandy on the VHF and his conversation was dripping with disgust. “She has to stay a day longer than you two,” he said to Sandy. “I guess she’s looking for a boyfriend in Panama City.”

“She’s already got a boyfriend in Panama City,” piped Hannah. “His name is James.”

You can imagine where it went from there.

We made our way back to Cartí where the water taxi took us to the airport and we met Manuel for our 4x4 ride to Panama City. I didn’t say anything about our last trip until he dropped us at our hotel. I asked him to pick me up in 4 days’ time and said, “Please, no amigos, only YOU.” He said no problem, which is what he says about everything because, well . . . he really doesn’t have any problems.

We stayed at our regular hotel, the Marparaiso, and Hannah noticed the difference right away from our previous Panama City hotel.. She raised an eyebrow when we entered the room. After sleeping in a boat bunk for over a week, she was looking forward to a real bed, and this hotel has one thin mattress atop a concrete pedestal topped by paper-thin sheets. But then she saw the television.

She climbed into bed with the remote control, put it on the Cartoon Network and began watching the Spanish ‘toons with a religious fervor. When I said we had to go to the grocery store to provision, she protested. “Let me stay here like you did at that other hotel,” she begged.

“That was a different hotel, in a different part of the city.” I told her. “Now, we are downtown, it’s less secure, and I’ll be gone longer than 20 minutes.” Reluctantly she tore herself away from the television and we hailed a taxi to Riba Smith’s, my favorite Panama City grocery. Provisioning at Riba Smith’s is my idea of a good time and Hannah was soon caught up in the fun of shopping out of country. She studied the unfamiliar items on the shelves, exclaiming when she saw a U.S. product. When we finished our shopping, I once again encountered difficulty getting a taxi. There must be some kind of problem for Panama City taxi drivers when it comes to picking up lone women who are obviously tourists. Months later, when I returned to the city with Joe, we caught cabs within seconds.

Dinner DateI told Hannah we could eat at any restaurant she wanted. She wanted to eat at a Planet Hollywood because she’d seen a logo on the way into the city, but I could not find any information about a Planet Hollywood restaurant in Panama City. Her second choice was a Hard Rock Café. When she saw the menu, she sighed with pleasure and ordered an appetizer, huge hamburger, fries, and a chocolate brownie sundae. She was almost able to eat everything, too. Ten days’ worth of simple meals and no soda pop had taken their toll; she was ready for a familiar U.S. menu. The next night we ate Italian at the Pomodoro restaurant, one of Panama’s best restaurants offering great food at very good prices.

“Are you going to cry when you take me to the airport?” she asked.

“No, probably not,” I said. Then, when I nervously delivered her to the Continental Airlines escort, I had a panic attack and tears began streaming down my cheeks. “It’s always easier leaving than being left,” I said to her, and she nodded, understanding, perhaps for the first time, why I leave every place to go somewhere else.

Some of us call it cruising.


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