A Travellerspoint blog

January 2011

Home Sweet Home

Happy to be back in Kerala

The circle of our long December journey closed this morning when we touched down in Trivandrum. The experience of returning to Kerala after being away for close to a month was a bit striking to me. Back in late August, we took a similar flight from from Mumbai to Trivandrum and I remember the excitement, anxiety, and uncertainty that accompanied our first arrival here. As we broke below the cloud ceiling and viewed the vast explosion of green palms and lush vegetation, we felt as if we were landing on a different planet. On our initial journey from the airport, we were terrified by the inane driving, noted how the the clothing was so different, shocked by the noise and litter and tropical foliage, and distracted by ever present question "how are we going to do here" resonating in our minds.

This morning, we once again flew from Mumbai over the same view but the emotions were completely different. We experienced a sense of relief, a feeling of homecoming, a return to what was familiar and comfortable. Last August, we had a small taste of the north of India and had nothing yet with which to compare the experience. This time, we consumed a banquet's worth of the north and came away grateful for all that we saw and did over the past few weeks but perhaps even more so, grateful that fate landed us in Kerala as our place to live for six months. I used to snicker a bit at the motto of the Kerala tourist board for Kerala as "God's Own Country", but I'm not snickering any more. Physical environment aside, the month we spent away from our apartment at TRINS allowed me to realize how much of a home Kerala has become. Stepping into the airport, I was so in tune to the laid back pace of things, being able to hire a cab knowing the appropriate fare and not having to wonder how much we were being ripped off this time, the ability to stop in a local supermarket we use on the way home to quickly pick up a few food items without having to search high and low, people we know smiling and waving as we pulled into the school - these are the little things we had taken for granted. Kerala is still India and has many maddening ways of operating and not operating, but what has been long suspected has been definitively confirmed - we are quite fortunate to have had this India experience in this unique part of the country.

More postings will follow related to some of the interesting experiences we've had over the last few weeks as I sort through the multitude of photos and video and draw out images that might be interesting to readers as well as to ourselves. This blog serves not only to share our experiences with family, friends, and other readers, but it also serves us as a lasting chronicle of our experience for ourselves, a hybrid photo/journal that won't gather dust in an old picture album but can be reviewed at any moment from anywhere. Putting together these entries is time consuming and a bit laborious, but it's a fine alternative to piecing together photo albums at home after the experience has ended and faded some in memory and our busy regular lives at home resume. I have boxes of photos from previous trips that never made it to an album and have never been shared with those who might be interested - it will be nice not to face that situation in a few weeks.

With our whirlwind journey behind complete, it is fair to say that the attention of each of us has turned to the three weeks we have remaining in India and to reunions with friends and family as well as reintegration into our "normal" lives back home in America. How we'll view our home, our family, our community, our schools, and our daily existence in our first world country after having been in India remains to be seen. If our return to our home in Kerala after being in the north is any indication of the impact of living in contrasting worlds, our reintegration into our lives in the US should prove quite interesting. It will be important to keep our minds present here - three weeks will pass quickly and there is much more to experience if we are able to stay in the game and not conclude our experience before it is actually over.

Posted by SteveJenn 07:56 Comments (0)

Christmas in Goa

Kicking back at the beach for the holidays

After our time in the Thar desert, we took a four hour train out of Jodhpur to Jaipur for the simple purpose of catching a cheaper flight to Goa. We couldn’t get out of either of these cities fast enough given the choking pollution and grime that one is continuously forced to breath. In some places in India, the diesel auto rickshaws have been banned but not in Rajastan and the difference is remarkable.

Things changed immediately upon arrival in Goa. Much further south and on the coast, the chill we were experiencing in Rajastan was absent and we found it great to be back in the rich greenness of a more tropical setting. For those not familiar with Goa, a quick history lesson. Goa came under control of Portugal in 1510 when Afonso de Albuquerque captured the fort at Panjim and established the colony as Portugal's first foothold in Asia. Goa remained under Portuguese control for 451 years until 1961, 14 years after India gained independence from the English. Four and a half centuries is a long time and the influence of the Portuguese both in terms of genetics and culture is clearly evident no matter where you go in Goa. Today, 30% of the Goa population is Roman Catholic and from our observations at the Christmas service, there was abundant mixing of Goan and Portuguese genes over the past centuries.
Candy canes at the airport - a good sign!

Because of changes to our travel plans, we had to stay one forgettable night in the Goan capital of Panjim. This city became the capital of Goa only after a combination of the the plague and the silting up of the harbor of Old Goa made the former capital obsolete. Still, it was close enough to Old Goa to offer a short visit to the old capital, a city that once was home to several thousand people but now is merely a ghost town. However the biggest ghosts are impressive - a number of old massive cream colored cathedrals, churches, and convents remain providing one's imagination the seeds necessary to invision the splendor of what was once a spectacular city.large_DSCN5209.jpg
Old Goa Church
Old Goa Church interior
Jenn gives a lesson on church architecture
Another Goan Church
The Governor's gate, once the entrance to a bustling city, now a gateway to a ghost town.
Mari down by the river at sunset - where did our little girl go?

After our night in Panjim, we taxied out to our primary desintation, Resort Terra Paraiso, in the coastal town of Calingute in North Goa. Jenn picked a winner with this place, a small but clean, charming, well run resort situated far enough away from the traffic of the main road paralleling the beach and only a five minute walk to the beach itself. It was so very nice to unpack the suitcases for five days. The resort attracted a potpourri of guests including Indians, Russians, Europeans, and Scandinavians, and others.
Santa greeted us at the door
Prepping for Christmas
Moon over Terra Paraiso

Arriving a couple of days before Christmas, we observed the slow but steady process of Christmas decorating leading up to a huge Christmas dinner and party on Christmas Day. Being so close to the beach, we spent a lot of time there. Goa came into its own in the 1960's as a vacation destination discovered by Western hippies in India for a variety of reasons consistent with that era in history. The miles and miles of sandy beaches and the laid back attitude drew increasingly larger crowds and a corresponding growth in the resort industry. A characteristic feature of the Goan beaches is the presence of hundreds of "beach shacks", small restaurants that serve food and drinks to the customers using their collection of umbrella covered beach chairs offered for free.
Beach shacks
It's really nice arrangement except for one thing - the unending stream of touts approaching us every 30 seconds selling something. It's a true test of patience - I discovered the best way to cope was to pretend I was asleep. For someone like Jenn trying to relax and read a book, it as not unlike the displeasure generated by mosquitoes at a campfire - it was just an unending chain of disturbances one after the other. Still, we were at the beach in beautiful warm December weather so it wasn't all that bad! Occasionally, someone would appear with something unique - the girls had some personalized bracelets made by a young girl who was about their age.
Fruit sellers take a break
Lena mermaid and friends
Steve and Mari take a walk
A contrast in cultures - a Muslim woman dressed in full burka enjoys the beach with her family while a European wearing considerably less saunters by
On a beach that stretched for a couple of miles, Indian vacationers crowd together in one small section - the more, the merrier...

One special event for both girls was the opportunity to Skype with their classmates back in Amesbury, the first time they have actually seen their classes due to our August departure. There was little doubt they'll slide back in quickly.
A hello from across the world.

As Christmas approached, Jenn asked Elena what she wanted and she replied "a Christmas tree". So Jenn hired a taxi and traveled into the town to rustle up a small tree from a nursery, some lights, and some ornaments and we had ourselves a beautiful tree Charlie Brown would have been proud of.
Decorating our tree

As one would expect in any beach resort area, there was a full slate of water sports offered at the beach so during the day on Christmas Eve, we negotiated a family rate for some para-sailing and gathered a different perspective on of the Goan coastline attached between a parachute and speed boat tow line.
On the parasailing boat
Lena in the air
Mari's turn

After a Christmas Eve dinner in town and a little shopping, we were set to attend the midnight mass. However, upon arriving an hour early to get a good seat, we learned from the security guard that the service was NOT in English, contrary to what we had been previously told, and that is would end around 2:00 am. The English service was the next morning at 10:30 am, so were were happy to adjust our schedule.
Christmas Day service at a Catholic church
Before leaving the church at the end of the service, each person stopped at the nativity to kiss the baby Jesus, who appears to have been a rather big baby...
Not an unusual scene in India - on the church steps on Christmas Day, beggars compete with boys handing out Dominos Pizza flyers for the attention of the departing attendees.

On Christmas morning the girls discovered that Santa had managed to locate them and arranged for a pedicure/manicure at the resort spa. The day was very relaxing - back to the beach and hanging out. The big event was the evening Christmas dinner celebration with a massive buffet dinner, live music, and lots of dancing 20 feet from the front door of our room.
Prepping for the big evening
Ejoying Christmas dinner
Rajastani fire dancer
An appearance from Santa
We enjoyed the festivities for a while but after the volume started getting to us, we opted out in favor of a visit to the massive Saturday night bazaar that happens once a week where vendors selling anything and everything a tourist could possibly want. Jenn acquired a bunch of the beautiful illuminated folding paper stars that we've seen decorating Christian homes in Kerala and Goa throughout the Christmas season.
Shopping for stars
Nice Lena
Naughty Lena

The rest of our time was more hanging at the beach and a lot of gift shopping. Our time here was every bit as relaxing and enjoyable as we imagined it would be, a wonderful break in the long and sometimes arduous trek cross various parts of the North of India. Goa we liked very much.

Posted by SteveJenn 05:50 Comments (1)

Communists in Control

Trying to untangle the complexities of the Kerala political and economic puzzle

(Note - this entry was written back in November with thoughts that I'd figure things out more the longer I was here but that ended up not being the case...)

India proudly wears its title as the the largest democracy in the world. I might be wrong, but I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of that fact. The state of Kerala has three branches - a democratically elected parliament for the legislative branch, a governor and deputy governor heads the executive branch, and a high court that serves as the judiciary branch. When I first learned that we were coming to Kerala, I was surprised to discover that the political party in power in this state was the Left Democratic Front (LDF), a coalition party led by the Communist Party of India - Marxist. This caught me off guard - in my formative years as a youth during the dark days of the cold war, I came to associate communism with one-party totalitarian states such as the USSR and East Germany. I'm not old enough to have experienced the McCarthy Era, but I've been around long enough to know that many Americans associate communism with much that is evil in the world. So it struck me odd that here in the world's largest largest democracy, one of the more advanced states in the country has been controlled by the Marxists on and off for much of the last 50 years.

We had dinner last night with the family of a colleague and I used the opportunity to get some answers to my questions about the sickle and hammer party. Why Kerala? Bengal is the only other Indian state where the Communist Party is influential. It seems to go back to the time of British rule where a few landlords controlled most of the land while most people were poor farmers of laborers. One can imagine the appeal of the communist message to the lowly and oppressed and during the early days of independence, the party gradually rose in popularity. For Americans accustomed to a two political system, it's difficult to imagine a country with 100's of political parties, many small offshoots of larger parties where a particular politician split away and started his own party. The LDF is actually a group of parties led by the Marxists - some people run as independents and when elected, are in a position to bargain with the larger coalitions for a few favors in return for their vote. Indian politics seems to be all about getting elected, making deals to solidify your position, and then do little until the next election to so no one can hold it against you.

The recent elections were strictly local elections but were seen as a political indicator of what might be in store in the next legislative elections. The communists lost a little ground in the local elections but remain the party in power at the state and many local areas. So how do the Communist Party policies differ from other parties? Apparently not very much at all distinguishes LDF from the Unified Democratic Front (UDF) which is the other main party here. As it was explained to me, the Communists are in power now but only by a slim margin. Over the years, they have held or lost a slim majority at the state level. I was told that their leaders have become as wealthy and corrupt as the other politicians - there's not much to distinguish them. The general opinion of politicians here is nearly universally negative. Because the parties in power are coalitions and are fearful of taking any actions that might alienate a member or be controversial one way or the other, very little actually gets done. People become fed up with the status quo after five years and sometimes put the opposition into the slim majority only to repeat the cycle all over again. Politics here is all about payoffs and political favors - if you are in business here and a candidate comes looking for a campaign contribution, you better think long and hard about refusing because if that person wins, the permits you might need may not get processed or there may suddenly be complaints from neighbors about noise from your business that leads to fines or other hassles. I hear about this stuff time and time again - little gets done in India without someone getting paid off to make it happen. It's just the way it is.
Labor unions in Kerala, empowered by years of communist control, are suffocatingly strong - little can be done without their consent and they can shut down the state (and do several times a year during work stoppages called harthals) in response to some action they disapprove of.

Despite all of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the politicians, over 70% of the voters came out to vote and degree and extent of the campaigning was simply amazing. No vertical surface anywhere was without a campaign poster.

The best way to prevent an opponent from posting next to you is to completely wallpaper the surface with your own posters.
The strategy works for light poles as well.
One of a fleet of noisy campaign vehicles
Not a lot of originality in the poster design, but at least they are smiling.
Notice how each candidate has a unique symbol to represent their party or the candidate themselves. This symbol appears on the ballot as well and helps less literate voters find their favorite candidates. The woman on the left seems to belong to the Microwave Oven Party. The woman on the right is taking a different approach - she's going hypnotize voters into siding with her.
Graffiti artists are in high demand during campaign season.

When all of the stone walls, telephone poles, and sides of buildings were completely covered, candidates (or rather their legions of volunteers - there are a lot of people around with not much to do) strung very long ropes along the roadsides and attached posters to them hanging like shirts - sometimes walls of this political laundry are built by stacking ropes 3 or 4 high aside or over the roads.

In addition to the massive amounts of visual clutter created during the campaigns, many campaigns also send out small trucks with massive speakers tied to the back that blast out at ear-shuttering volume an unless flow of campaign chatter, party themes songs, and sometimes, the candidate will even be on the back waving. From the school's location here on the top of a hill, we heard near continuous assaults on the human ear in the villages nearby in the closing days of the campaigns. Just for kicks, I decided to go out and sit near the front gates of the school to get a good look at the setups. I have some video of one of these trucks that passed me three times while I sat out there. I felt like an old friend by the time he passed by for the last time.

Notice the woman carrying the sticks on her head as the truck passes - here's a better view of her.
After I took her photo, she wanted money and was really pissed at me because I didn't have my wallet with me.
While all of this is going on, a different citizen of our neighborhood was gathering water the way many people do = from the well.
Here's another mobile source of political noise on the main highway

So Kerala is rather unique in it's repeated support of a democratically elected communist party. It's also unique in a couple of other regards.
Much economic and political analysis has been conducted on the reasons for some of Kerala's unexpected advances in the well being of its citizens. Kerala is distinguished from many other developing nations/states across the globe by a number of very positive attributes. The literacy rate here demand attention - in India, the literacy rate stands at 64.8% (75.2% for males and 53.6% for females) while in Kerala, the rate is the highest in the country at 90.8% (94.2% for men and 87.7% for women). The health and life span of the people in Kerala are en par with developed countries and in fact, a significant medical tourism industry brings many people from developed countries here for cheaper medical services. As the same time, the average annual income of a Keralite is about $300 per year. Is this the happy consequence of Communist rule? Hard to tell...Women have always enjoyed a more prominent status in Kerala culture - historically, this has been a matriarchal culture in which women, especially mothers, have played an important role. This fact certainly has contributed to the emphasis placed on education and the well being of children and families. Another factor to consider when trying to understand Kerala's relatively positive condition is the role of remissions from Keralites working abroad. One in every five rupees here is earned outside of India, mostly in the Gulf States, a stream of income that enables a higher standard of living for many families as well as funds for education and health services. Given the difficulties of dealing with powerful labor unions, economic development in the state falls well short of it's potential - many foreign companies don't want to deal with the labor issues that can be stifling. So to summarize, political, economic, and social elements all contribute to a somewhat complicated puzzle that easily confounds an uninitiated visitor from the second largest democracy in the world

Like the US, India is also divided into states, each having a long individual cultural and political history long before the establishment of modern India as an independent country. Most Indian states have one or more of their own languages - Malayalam is spoken only in Kerala - as well as individual religious or historical influences that makes many wonder what holds the collection of unique pieces together. It's been apparent to me over the past few weeks that one major component of that glue is the process of democracy itself despite the culture of ineffectiveness and corruption that is so pervasive. Just another of India's fascinating enigmas.

Posted by SteveJenn 09:15 Comments (1)

Cave Culture

A side trip to visit the Ajanta and Ellora Caves

When we first learned that we would be coming to India I spent a lot of time researching many of the ancient architectural wonders of the country. India is so vast, and travel is so difficult here that we knew we couldn't visit them all, but from the beginning I told Steve that at the top of my list was a chance to see the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. They are located in Maharashtra on the Deccan plateau, somewhat removed from the tourist trail, so we had booked flights from Goa to Aurangabad, the closest big city, with a connection in Mumbai.

Our exit from Goa did not go well. I had booked our flights thru an online travel site back in October, and as I have now learned, made the mistake of selecting an option using two different airlines. It is a long, long story that is still not fully settled, but because of the way things don't work here, after arriving on time with confirmed seats we found ourselves facing cancellation fees for a missed connection, hotel costs and full last minute fares totaling close to $700. As the four of us were travelling for most of December our budget had been carefully set, and an extra $700 was not in it. As I stood in the Goa airport beginning to face the reality that I might not get to see the caves, Steve mentioned something about looking into taking an overnight bus from Mumbai and I burst into tears. At that moment I had reached my breaking point of India travel. It was a female Jet Airways manager, who saw this probably ridiculous looking sobbing foreign woman standing with her two children and husband, who ultimately took pity on us and rearranged things to get us to our destination the next day. God bless Venant.

The first day we drove for a few hours north to the site of the Ajanta Caves. We viewed some typical scenes along the way:
As this was peak season there were long lines of people waiting to take buses into the ravine where the caves are located. At least we had some entertainment as we stood in the lines.


When we reached the parking lot it was a bit of a hike up to the caves. Some Indians opted for a ride up on a sedan chair.

A bit of history here from The Rough Guide:

"Hewn from the near-vertical side of a horshoe-shaped ravine, the caves at Ajanta occupy a site worthy of the spectacular ancient art they contain. Less than two centuries ago, this remote spot was known only to the local Bhil tribes-people; the shadowy entrances to its abandoned stone chambers lay buried deep under a thick blanket of creepers and jungle. The chance arrival in 1819 of a small detachment of East India Company troops, however, brought the caves' obscurity to an abrupt end. Led to the top of the precipitous bluff that overlooks the gorge by a young "half-wild" scout, the tiger-hunters spied what has now been identified as the facade of Cave 10 protruding thru the foliage. The British soldiers had made one of the most sensational archeological finds of all time."


This was the site of a Buddhist monastery and inscriptions indicate that the earliest cave excavations took place in the second century BC. Ajanta had it's heyday from around 500 to 600 AD when it sheltered more than two hundred monks as well as a large community of painters, sculptors and laborers employed in excavating and decorating the cells and sanctuaries. There are a total of 28 colonnaded caves chiseled out of the chocolate brown and grey basalt cliffs lining the river.


In addition to the rows of stone Buddhas and other sculptures, it is the murals and painted artwork that line the interiors that are so remarkable. As I walked thru the caves I was particularly struck by the panelized decorative ceilings. So many of the motifs and designs created by these monks can still be found in the most beautiful buildings in the western world. The light levels are kept low to protect the art but you can still make out why they are regarded as the finest surviving gallery of art from any of the world's ancient civilizations.


This was our only available time to visit Ajanta, but I can't say that we weren't warned about the tortuous crowds before we came:

"In spite of its comparative remoteness, Ajanta receives an extraordinary number of visitors. If you want to enjoy this site in anything close to its original serenity, avoid coming on a weekend or public holiday- it takes a fertile imagination indeed to picture Buddhist monks filing softly around the rough stone steps when riotous school kids and holiday-makers are clambering over them."
It was very difficult to remain focused on the sights after yet another piercing whistle from a guard yelling at the Indian tourists not to take flash photos of the artwork. Deep breaths, deep breaths Jenn, you are viewing a world treasure...

Pushing and shoving is the way they queue.

The girls found a lovely spot to sit on our way out to join the line for the 45 minute wait for the buses.


The next day we stopped at the dramatic fort of Daulatabad on our way to the Ellora caves. I won't bore you with the history, suffice it to say it involves some fighting between a bunch of Hindus, Jains, and Muslims.

As usual we found ourselves part of the attraction for the Indian tourists. I wonder sometimes just how many thousands of phones and cameras in India include a picture of us.

When we reached Ellora in the afternoon we were glad to find that there were no buses involved, and the crowds were lighter. We had some relative peace and quiet exploring for a while. There are 34 caves here, and they were started in the middle of the sixth century, about the time that Ajanta was abandoned. This was the twilight of the Buddhist era in central India, and by the seventh century Hinduism was on the rise, so the majority of the caves here are Hindu, culminating in the building of the colossal Kailash Temple in the eighth century. Where Ajanta is prized for its paintings and location, here architecture and sculpture reign supreme.


Some residents of the caves:
We rested for a few minutes, as we had saved the best for last and wanted to view the Kailash Temple in the afternoon light. This monolithic structure is Ellora's masterpiece. It took one hundred years and four generations of kings, architects and craftsmen before the project was completed. The temple was hewn from solid rock and the sheer scale is staggering. All in all, a quarter of a million tons of chippings and debris are estimated to have been cut from the hillside, with no room for improvisation or error. The temple was conceived as a giant replica of Shiva and Parvarti's Himalayan abode, the pyramidal Mount Kailash- a Tibetan peak said to be the "divine axis" between heaven and earth. The Sanborns said, not too shabby...

Posted by SteveJenn 03:29 Comments (1)

Service Learning at TRINS

Students teach English at government primary schools

One of the important themes that runs through the TRINS school culture is the importance of community service work. An earlier blog posting on the Food Fest showed one of the ways in which the students can help out. Another program that offers students a more direct service experience involved all of the members of the 11th grade class who board a bus each Wednesday morning and visit three near-by local government run elementary schools. The purpose of the visits is to teach students from grades 1 to 5 a little bit of English language during the weekly hour long visit. From what I observed, there was a whole lot more going on than language instruction.

Government elementary schools normally start the school day at 10:00 am but on Wednesdays, the children voluntarily come to school an hour earlier to participate in the program.

The design of most government schools I've saw reminded me very much of a long row of stables - one door into a room that often had no lights at all, a concrete floor, grimy and cluttered walls, and a minimum of classroom furniture. At the end of the day, the doors are secure from the outside with large padlocks. Aside from texts, a chalkboard was frequently the only tool the teacher had to work with.
I asked the boys to show me their muscles...

Government schools in India are typically poorly resourced, overcrowded, often bleak environments for children. The school we visited not atypical in this regard though bleak would be too strong an adjective for the school we viewed during our visit - the students were quite lively upon the arrival of the TRINS students and it was clear that a close repore has developed between the TRINS kids, who worked as a pair in each classroom, and their energetic students.

The only light in the room came from the windows and small opening in the ceiling.
Acquiring a tolerance for a lack of space is learned early.

A number of the TRINS students are not from Kerala and do not speak Malayalam, so communication can be a rather challenging task sometimes.

What I witnessed was quite impressive - the TRINS kids worked alone in the classrooms without the teacher present and had control of the class. Like benevolent big brothers and sisters, the students practiced introducing themselves then recited nursery rhymes such as "1,2, buckle my shoe" to practice numbers and vocabulary. Everyone involved was having a great time. With only one 50 minute English lesson per week, none of the children seemed to be making dramatic progress toward English fluency, but they were enjoying themselves and being exposed to older students who were serving as positive role models. For the TRINS students who mostly come from quite comfortable economic conditions, the chance to give of themselves to others less fortunate can be a powerful experience for building compassion and developing a sense of commitment to assist the disadvantaged, an attitude that quite frankly is lacking in many Indian people.

Learning numbers with rhymes

What's a buckle?

Twinkle, Twinkle...

Education has become big business in India as more and more people seek alternatives to ineffective government schools. Kerala leads the country with regard to the education level of its citizens so these schools are producing results despite their worn and primitive appearance. Still, one can't help but wonder how these kids might learn if provided with adequate learning resources. Parents ask the same question and don't wait to find out - numerous private schools available at a mostly manageable cost are filling with students leaving local government schools. We were told that in an effort to persuade parents to not remove their children in favor of a private school, the school we were visiting recently began to serve a free breakfast to the students upon their arrival. The photos below offer a glimpse of what this breakfast experience is like.
Kitchen ladies
Serving idlis
Breakfast is served

I came away from the visit completely impressed with the way in which the TRINS students conducted themselves - these weekly school visits offer as much education as their lessons back in the classrooms. I also tried to imagine the conditions of government schools in parts of India that were much more poor and less educated. Half of India's population is under 25 - providing an adequate education for all young people will continue to remain one of the countries most difficult challenges.

Posted by SteveJenn 08:15 Comments (1)

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