('On-line' text of)
'VIA RISHIKESH - A HITCH-HIKER'S TALE'
An account of hitch-hiking from England to Europe,
North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan & India in 1970
by Paul Mason
© Paul Mason 2006
The sky it is clearing,
the boat it is steering its way through the fog.
It could be a good day,
it should be a good day,
beyond the fog.
The crash of the sunlight startling bright,
sending out beams that scatter the night,
The birds they are soaring on the wing,
the sun it is shining on everything,
beyond the fog.
Who wants to know what the future holds?
When the sun soothes away the chilling cold.
Who wants to know?
Who wants to know
beyond the fog?
Arising with the first rays of the morning sun I take in the view of the delightful expanse of light coloured sandy shore of the gently lapping stillness of the Mediterranean. Up above us seabirds glide on the wing. I look over at my girlfriend Yolanda who is gazing out to sea, an air of contentment surrounding her. We have time to enjoy the moment; there is no need to go anywhere yet, and certainly no need to rush about.
Lazily we roll up our sleeping bags and take ourselves off along the front, vaguely in search of breakfast we make for the nearest cafe, an Italian style espresso bar that provides us with frothy coffee and cake. Not an ideal breakfast, but certainly better than nothing. Continuing our walk we move further along the road, which runs parallel to the seafront. Here there are long established old-fashioned looking hotels with names such as 'Grand Hotel' and 'Uaddan', their like one might find on the South coast of England, in Hastings or Bexhill, perhaps. But in these gardens stand immense and ancient palm trees.
A signboard directs the way to the British Embassy, I think it might be a good idea to pop in there for a chat. On our way we stop and talk with one of the locals, a chap by the name of Dowee who reminds me of someone we both know, back in London. Dowee is the spitting image of a guy called Dario.
'What's that chick's name?' I once asked Dario.
'I know who you mean. You'll land her, man.'
'Really?' I had responded. 'But what's her name?'
'You'll land her!' he said again with grinning impatience. So I let the matter drop, though I was still puzzled as to why he wouldn't tell me her name. When Yolanda and I started getting more interested in each other there came a rift came between Dario and myself. It was never spoken of but it was there.
Someone once said 'You chase a woman until she catches you!' But in our case I did no chasing and to be fair to Yolanda, nor did she. It was as though we both found something familiar about each other, as if it were a relationship that had been fated, perhaps. Something like that!
'We'll come back after we've been to the embassy,' I tell Dowee.
'Sure. Okay. I'll wait,' Dowee assures us, leaning his back against the car.
Yolanda has been struck by the similarity of the likeness of Dario and Dowee too. The similarity is quite unnerving, for whilst both share a very similar bone structure, they have other things in common too, such as their mannerisms and their attitude. They really bear an uncanny resemblance to one another.
At the embassy I turn the handle and enter the room of youngish looking diplomats. For convenience their names are displayed upon their desks, the first one is called Bull, the next one is Carrington.
'Hi. Can we ask you a few questions?'
'Of course you may. You are English?'
'Yes I am. My girlfriend here is Italian.'
'How do you do?' he asks, politely shaking hands.
Carrington reveals that at present we are the only western tourists in Tripoli, which is something of a surprise. I offer a brief resume of our route so far and explain how we wish to go to India, telling him our intended route. As we all stand around a large-scale map of Libya and the surrounding region I sense that the besuited official is flustered by us. Perhaps it is the casual way in which I put myself across?
'Impossible,' he blurts out, ' you can't go across the desert; the only traffic there is the occasional oil tanker. You had better return to England. I urge you to seriously reconsider your situation.'
I suppose that to these air-conditioned diplomats we represent nothing more than a nuisance, possibly even an embarrassment, so hastily I offer our thanks and get ready to leave.
We find our newfound friend Dowee waiting outside; he offers to take us for a meal in a place called Downtown Gingerpopoli. The mere mention of the name creases me up with laughter as the name sounds so much like Ginger Pop. When I was a kid our Christmas's would not have been complete without at least one bottle of good old Idris Ginger Pop. The cause of my mirth is lost on both Yolanda and Dowee.
Coasting through Tripoli we come to a luxurious area, a 'new town' with a wide choice of places to eat, such as Guy and Joe's Snack Bar, Hot Meals : Red Cat and Tavola Calda. We draw up in the car park of the Italian sounding one.
For someone only recently released from the grips of dysentery it is difficult to know what best to choose. I settle on something reasonably simple.
'Cheese salad and Coke,' I order, and noticing Yolanda nodding I add, 'Twice.'
The atmosphere of the spacious restaurant is nicely relaxed and I get real enjoyment tucking into the meal. As Dowee speaks good English the three of us are able to chat easilly and I soon learn from him that he has visited the United States, a fact he seems inordinately proud of this fact. It occurs to me that there are probably many Libyans like him who are attracted to the West.
Over the next couple of weeks we become frequent visitors to this part of town. In the company of various Libyan friends we sample the delights of both Uptown and Downtown Tripoli.
At nights we sleep untroubled on the beach.
One morning, waking up wet, drenched in the morning mist, we dry in the intense heat of the sun and then run off the beach in search of some shade. We later meet with Dowee who suggests that we might like to go on a picnic to a deserted palm beach beyond Tripoli.
We set up a large parasol and share a meal together before fooling around on the sands. I take a dip in the crystal clear sea and am delighted to see swarms of small exotic fishes. Back on the beach Dowee wants to show us his camera, a Land camera that can produce 'instant' pictures - I have never seen such cameras before. He takes a whole wodge of photos of us sitting around the beach. But the heat is so great that we return again and again to the shade of the umbrella. We stick it out until late afternoon when we return back in Dowee's car. But I soon get the impression that all is not right with Dowee, I hope he is not about to spring some surprise on us. We have had enough 'odd' encounters on our trip so far. The cause of Dowee's mood change soon becomes clear, the way back through into Tripoli has been barred!
'Cholera outbreak. They've sealed the city off with roadblocks,' he informs us nervously, 'But I have an idea.'
Dowee looks about him furtively as we race around the outskirts of the city churning up sand. At length a look of relief flickers across his open face. Yanking wildly at the steering wheel he races the car towards a gap between some buildings and just squeezes through the narrow lane.
'We've done it!' he ejaculates, clearly mightily relieved.
Safely inside the city again, Dowee pulls up and confers with some men who are standing about in the street. Returning to the car he asks if we would mind going with him to the hospital to get vaccinated against cholera. We are there in a jiffy.
It is a very modern hospital and outside in the blistering sunshine stand lines of men and women waiting. We are shepherded past the waiting populous and are given red carpet treatment, in that we are whisked to the front of the queue to receive our shots and vaccination cards. Shots they certainly are; the doctor uses a large tool, akin to an electric drill or a gun, with a needle attached which pierces our clothes. All over in a matter of moments and I hardly felt a prick.
'The American troops are restricted to base,' Dowee informs us.
'What American troops? What are they doing here?' I ask.
'Don't drink any tap water for a while,' he warns.
We are taken home, where we are introduced to his wife. She doesn't have a lot to say, she doesn't seem to speak much English. I ask if I can put on some music, but the hippest record I can find is by Roger Whitaker! Though 'King of the Road' is a good cut, we have to endure the nonsense of 'Eng-a-land swings like a pendulum do, bobbies on bicycles two-by-two..' I get to wishing for my own selection of sounds, back home.
After our visit to Dowee's, Yolanda confides me a theory she has evolved, simply that Arabs like their womenfolk both plump and light skinned. To this end she contends, they keep them out of the sunshine and let them eat a lot.
The cholera scare means that no fizzy drinks are available (since they contain potentially contaminated local water) but this turns out to be a blessing as the only alternative to bottled soft drinks is canned pineapple juice. These came from South East Asia with such unlikely names as Telephone Brand. I hear the Yank soldiers are all restricted to base.
On the basis of our experience in Tunisia, we think it wise to check whether or not we need a visa in order to enter the next country on our itinerary. At the Egyptian Embassy we are charmed by their representative but leave him somewhat confused and a trifle depressed. He tells us we are not permitted to cross overland into Egypt, but that if we arrive by boat or aeroplane, we will be most welcome there. Since flying is obviously out of the question, being too expensive, my first instinct is to ignore his advice and strike out for Benghazi the next major town along the coast, and from there try our luck at the border. But there is the other option to consider, so a trip to the shipping office is in order.
'Yes there's a boat sailing for Benghazi and Alexandria on the 31st of August,' he informs us.
'We'll have two tickets to Alexandria then.' I interrupt enthusiastically.
'I was about to say.... that; due to this cholera scare the boat will not be stopping at these ports,' he adds gloomily.
'How can it go there but not stop?' I snap.
He continues his explanation, 'No, the boat will not go to Benghazi or Alexandria. It is bound for Istanbul but also it will stop in Athens.'
We withdraw from the shipping office and convene a meeting. As we chat about it there appear to be three options open to us. 1. We can take our chances and just go to the Egyptian border. 2. We could get a boat to Italy and take an alternate route to India (an option Yolanda warms to). Lastly and the strongest contender; 3. Take the ship all the way to Istanbul.
There is of course another solution; take the advice of the British embassy and give up! At this point of time this looks the most likely course of action.
We are agree on one thing, that we need some extra cash if buy any tickets, it would place undue strain our resources. But how can we get ourselves any extra cash sorted out here in Tripoli? The situation appears desperate, but we hit upon an idea. We could present ourselves back at the embassy and tell them we have lost some of our money, maybe tell that it has been stolen. Then we might be able to borrow enough for our needs?
At the embassy the official on duty shows little or concern with our predicament. We don't wish to borrow much and his lack of apparent concern for our welfare frustrates me terribly and I become angry and frustrated. He remains adamantly unhelpful and so a hostile exchange ensues - I give his desk a huge shove, which causes papers and objects on his desktop and in the drawers to become strewn across the floor.
Having given vent to my feelings I assume an indignant air and make my exit, with Yolanda trailing behind me.
If only we had something that we could sell, but amongst our belongings we have nothing of value. We take a chance and try selling the little silver pillbox. Standing on the esplanade we offer it to passers by. Time after time we are met with bemused expressions as we do our sales pitch. And repeatedly we are met with the same smiling reactions; no one has any need of a little silver box. They show us their wrists and hands, which gleam brightly with heavy gold bracelets and rings.
'Non a biamo soldi,' Yolanda explains that we don't have money (for the boat trip).
Some of those we speak to open wallets and make contributions to our funds. I am astonished at how much money these people carry with them, most have bulging wallets, which contain upwards of a hundred pounds. We persist in our sales patter and in a few hours we have received almost enough to almost pay for our tickets. What a good bunch these people are, so openhearted and generous to travellers in need, and none would take anything in exchange for the money. We get to keep the little silver box.
Whilst continue to sleep on the beach at night; no one bothers us there, though we do have the occasional visitors. One night a friend of a friend, comes to visit, apparently his name is Steevee. He doesn't have anything to say though; he just stands there in silence. We take the initiative to get the conversation going and share our worry about our difficulty in raising enough money to get to India. Steevee at last spoke.
'What have you got to sell?'
'Silver box, a penknife, nothing more,' I say.
He appears unimpressed.
'You sell me something. I have lots of money.'
Certainly in this land, which appears to be much more affluent than Britain, it is difficult to know what we have to trade. I strain hard, since it seems he wants to help us.
'What do you want to buy?' I ask him at length.
'I want...' he says, very quietly.
'Pardon. I don't hear you.' I tell him.
'I want fuck,' he announces.
He is neither aggressive nor offensive; he has stated an answer to my question, nothing more.
'Okay,' I answered 'you want a fuck… FUCK!! There you are, now how much will you give for that?'
Well what can I do? At least it diffuses the tension and gets rid of him, for he walks back to his car and drives away. Surprisingly, Yolanda doesn't seem particularly bothered about what he said, but she is concerned that he might get desperate.
When our mutual friend hears about the incident he can't stop apologising about the incident, he seems really angry about the incident.
In a city where all the street signs are all written in Arabic it's not easy to know where one is at any time. According to information received (as the police jargon goes) up until a few months before the streets were all signposted in English. Another recent change has been in the prohibition of alcohol, which is now unobtainable in bars or restaurants even if it isn't totally unavailable elsewhere.
We run into a foreign correspondent for the News of the World (or so he claims) who plies us with illegal rum. After a disjointed interview the journalist promises to wire the resulting story to London.
There is only one thing worse for a teetotaler than being drunk, which is being drunk in a country where liquor is illegal, thereby running the risk of discovery. Though unable to walk a straight line we have the good sense to keep our exhalations to ourselves, which is no mean achievement when you are walking through busy streets.
The following Sunday we go to a newsagents where we discover the proprietor locating and scissoring out advertisements for ladies undergarments, censorship presumably called for by the authorities. Alas we find no trace of the article we are looking for, and assume that too has been given the chop.
* * *
The cholera jabs cause us a fair amount of misery, as our arms become swollen and sore making sleep very difficult. We are told to return for boosters after ten days. At Muassat Hospital, an ultra modern institution, on payment of a few coins (200 milliemes each) we receive injections against variole (smallpox) and cholera. We now have immunity to everything and our inoculations are recorded in little booklets known as 'International Certificates of Vaccination'. On the certificates are affixed red postage stamps of Tripoli Castle - I am confused that they are marked Royaume de Libye (Kingdom of Libya) for I am led to believe that the army are in charge.
Back on the main street I notice someone selling nail clippers. The choice is between one, which is embellished with a green and gold bird sitting on a branch and another with a photograph of a man in army uniform. I notice that amongst other items for sale are other pictures of this man. Finding one with a name printed underneath, I identify the man as Colonel Muammar Quadafi. I wonder that perhaps it was his idea to ban alcohol and take down the English street signs?
A Libyan friend who calls himself Rok tells us he is worried about for our welfare and safety and takes every opportunity to look after us.
He tells us he works in oil and has come to Tripoli for a break and was set on looking after us. One evening he suggested that we all went to the cinema. A British film was showing, 'Kelly's Heroes', no buff of war films I agreed all the same. A bizarre experience for the film was dubbed in Arabic with English subtitles.
Intent that we should stay in a hotel at his expense he had his work cut to convince us. We liked the beach. We felt moderately safe and very happy there. He was less sure. To avoid causing offence we agreed to his proposal.
'How can we repay you?' I ask.
'A postcard. Send me a postcard, that's all I want from you,' he answers; he's a rock, true to his name.
Actually, I don't enjoy staying in the hotel; I yearn for the open sky and the sound of the water lapping. It is so claustrophobic to be inside, and even though there are fans it gets far too hot for us. We stayed at the hotel but the one night.
We love Tripoli, we love the weather, the people, the affluence and the location, all really good reasons to stay and settle down. Perhaps we would stay on here if the compulsion to travel to India were not as strong as it is. From what we learn, the population here is low and the gross income is high, so workers are paid very high wages. The problem is only that they have little to spend the money on. We hear that Libyans go away and holiday in resorts such as Tunis and Beirut. Since the national economy is very prosperous new developments flourish here. It seems that after years of foreign rule (the British and the Italians) the Libyans are now calling the shots and the only dissent to be heard against the new administration is about the prohibition of alcohol. Nowadays the Italian style nightclubs of Giorgimpopoli [later renamed Gargaresh] only sold soft drinks, I had thought the area to be called Gingerpopoli, in the light of the prohibition this would have been an appropriate name.
A visit to a club, decorated with nautical trappings, leads to an invitation to stay over at an ex-patriots house. We pass up the offer of homemade alcohol, the results of D-I-Y distilling, but enjoy the luxuries of sleeping in fresh sheets and access to a proper bathroom. I decide to wash my purple sweatshirt and hang it on the fence to dry. Being an impatient sort I go to check its progress after only a quarter of an hour. I am shocked to find it completely dry already.
'Totally unbelievable,' I exclaim, 'Yolanda, look at this.'
Not only is the shirt bone dry but also it is two tone. The sun has all but bleached the top half of the front.
All the concern expressed over our safety has got to us. We have become infected with irrational worry to the point where we now eagerly comply with any alternative options offered. So when we hear that one of our friends knows an acquaintance who owns a beach hut on the other side of town, we are well and truly baited. We go down to the beach hut colony and get to know the 'In Crowd'. After biding our time here a while I raise the matter of accommodation.
'He said you agreed to let us stay the night,' I explain
'Oh really?' he asks assuming a look of mock innocence which barely masks his devious smile.
'Yes. Is it okay?' I continue.
'What's in it for me,' he asks, casting a lewd look in Yolanda's direction. His many friends stand about us, watching and waiting.
'What do you mean exactly?' I enquire suspiciously.
Oh, it is the same old thing, so realising I have to assert myself and assert myself now, I thump him in the face. Yolanda and I storm off leaving him to nurse his nose and his bruised ego. I am mightily relieved that none of his friends come to his aid, they might have killed me. But as it is they just stand there and watch walk away.
My hand aches, I cannot move my thumb. I realise that in the heat of the moment my thumb became entwined within my fist so when I walloped him it became crushed.
'It might be broken,' I moan, 'I can't move it.'
Yolanda looked at me warmly. She seems impressed at my chivalrous deed, so I guess it is almost worth the pain?
A few days earlier Yolanda and I had fallen out over some trivial disagreement and she had threatened to go back to Italy.
'Not without a passport you don't,' I said, patting our passports conveniently tucked in my belt.
After the disagreement had passed I offered to arrange her trip back to Italy with the shipping office.
'I didn't mean it,' she assured me.
'Well anyway, why don't you look after your own passport from now on?' I suggested.
'Would you mind if I said 'shut up'?' said Yolanda, kind of closing the incident.
Now, my damaged thumb does much to create a balance of our energies. I suspect that if I had actually shed blood I believe I might be able to rely on her undivided loyalty forever more.
* * *
We are due to sail tomorrow, and it seems almost too good to be true that we have an invitation to go back to someone's house for supper with a promise of overnight accommodation. Things couldn't really have worked out better, for this our last evening in Tripoli. Our host has to go out and he leaves us in the company of his Sudanese cook-house keeper, a massive dark-skinned giant. He appears to take a liking to us and we to him, though we are limited in what we can say to one another as about from Arabic, he only speaks a little pidgin Italian, but nonetheless we have a reasonable idea what he is saying.
He prepares a meal consisting of cooked meat and vegetables.
'Manjaaree,' he keeps saying, cajoling us to eat and eat and eat.
By way of casual conversation, the picnic with Dowee and his Polaroid pictures get mentioned. I guess that every good turn does deserve a favour and the Sudanese cook demands his. But we don't want to part with our mementoes and that is that. He the cook has other ideas and he becomes quite pressing. Reluctantly we release our grip on the photos.
In the course of the evening he becomes exceedingly oppressive and overbearing. Whether he has been drinking or that this is his normal temperament I can't be sure. The atmosphere is now quite tense and I sense that we would do well, very well, to leave his company at the earliest opportunity. Actually, I am in fear for our safety and in particular that of my girlfriend. I know that if it came to a confrontation I would be pulverised, so the only answer lies in escape, and when he disappears to do some washing up, very quietly we open the front door and run for it.
With baggage swinging from our shoulders we hurtle down the street, not even looking back to see if he is in pursuit. Flustered and breathless we make a bee-line for the harbour, for it seems foolhardy to return to our place on the beach, as he would be able to find us there. So we spend the evening and all the night uncomfortably sitting at a table by a cafe close to the harbour. At least we feel safe!
* * *
We must appear a decidedly grim pair of individuals as we present ourselves at the dockside customs hut next morning.
'I'll be glad to get away from Libya,' I remark to my girlfriend bitterly.
Our passports and medical papers are checked, but I sense that all is not well and without explanation the officer requests for us to enter a small room along the corridor. I have been unable to read my visa but it seems that somewhere, very lightly stamped, is an order to register with the police. When this is pointed out to me I apologise for my oversight. It occurs to me that the police must have been aware of our every move on the streets of Tripoli, after all we stuck out like a sore thumb. We are questioned, nay, interrogated, about our stay in Tripoli and as the questioning persists I begin to worry that we will miss the boat, and worse.
'You don't like Libya?' the most important looking officer asks dramatically.
The penny drops. This is what all the fuss is about; maybe they overheard me in the passage outside. Oops, me and my big mouth!
Of course I like Libya, but there was the fight on the beach and us having to flee from the guy from Sudan? It might complicate things even more if these got mentioned.
'We really like your country. Really, we just had an upsetting day yesterday, we didn't sleep at all last night,' I answer truthfully.
The policeman looked relieved. His fellow officers also looked relieved.
'Then you like Libya?'
We nod vigorously. Grins all round and back slapping too. There are no more questions. We are free to go!
'That was amazing,' I whisper to Yolanda after the officials have disappeared. 'They really care about what we think don't they? I can't see that sort of thing happening back in England.'
In hushed tones Yolanda echoes my feelings as we make our way to the gangway of the ship.
The captain of the SS Kades courteously welcomes us both aboard his ship and to my deep consternation he takes charge of our passports. Since we are travelling with only deck class tickets I have anticipated spending the entire voyage on deck, in a deck chair perhaps. The captain introduces us to a member of the crew and informs us that the man is responsible for us and will show us to our 'quarters'. Now that sounds pretty grand.
We descend below deck and find a young European already in residence, lying in a bunk. He lifts up his eyes as the steward shows us about.
It transpires that Anthony, for that is his name, has sailed from Tunis with the intention of visiting Libya, his plan being thwarted by the cholera business. He explains that he is undertaking a slow 'overland' trip to Australia. Apparently he intends to spend his time 'following the sun' to secure a whole year of sunshine. His appears a novel concept to me. As his story unfolded, I discover that he has most recently been employed as a salesman in that most famous London store, Harrods. He wants to travel the world and as part of his plan he intends to find work in Australia. I have to hand it to him, he is certainly seizing his opportunities and I admire that.
Anthony has a lot to say, perhaps a result of his travelling alone for so long. He complains of the cockroaches and overheating onboard and points out to us that the vessel we are sailing on is a former Nazi mine sweeper. The ship has been converted, but we are in what used to be the equipment area. There is an insignia and cast metal signs in the German, which bear witness to his claim.
Anthony just didn't stop talking. He produces maps on which he traces out his intended route for us.
'To Istanbul via Greece, then through Turkey by train, buses through Persia or Iran as it's known. Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. After that I'll sail to Indonesia and maybe fly on to Australia,' he explains. I notice he has two copies of the map, one spread out on the bunk; the other is folded by his side. I asked him why?
'Oh, one of them I use as a fly swatter,' he replies uncomfortably.
Not I am not a confirmed champion of flies, I nevertheless try to help them out by relieving him of the swatter and it doesn't take so very much coaxing before I have my own map of Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan. Curiously enough, just to be in possession of it makes me feel more confident that someday we will get to India.
There are bunks enough for dozens of people so it seems odd that there are only three of us staying here. But I have no problem with this arrangement, as it will certainly give us more than enough space to get along with one another.
'Would you like to see the rest of the boat?' Anthony offers, 'I'll show you the galley. It's a bit pricey, two dollars a meal.'
'Yes, let's go. But I don't like the sound of the two-dollar touch though. Don't they have any snacks there?' I puzzle.
The trip around the boat is necessarily brief, after all this is not a luxury liner, though I did catch sight of some rather plush looking cabins on our walkabout. Up winding metal staircases and along corridors, down more winding staircases, along more corridors and we are back in the mine sweeping area.
It now appears that we are four. The luggage of another deck class person, which includes a cardboard crate containing a television set, lies neatly placed by a bunk on the far side. Nearby the luggage stands a heavily tanned chap who we discovered is charm itself, he appears such a very gentle soul. I immediately feel endeared to him.
Yolanda, Anthony and myself get down to some more intense talking, so we barely notice our departure from Tripoli harbour. The topic has returned to bugs, Anthony has lots to say about these. With a haunted look on his face and a great furrowing of brow, he describes to us the cockroaches, the really huge ones, many of which live in our quarters. Yolanda sits spellbound as he tells us of them.
'How big? Ohhh, no, I don't believe it,' she coos.
'Perhaps it's the heat that attracts them. Can't you open the windows?' I suggest.
'Can't open the portholes, the Turkish guy's got the key. But if you think this is hot, then just wait, that's all I've got to say!' he splutters.
'Oh we'll open them, don't worry,' I say optimistically. 'I bet there's a way. I'll try to figure it out in the morning.'
Before turning in for the night Yolanda and I set out for a last mosey around the vessel, to stare at the star studded firmament from the ship's deck. It is wonderful.
Returning below I glance over at the other occupant's bed.
'Hey look you guys,' I whisper.
There on the bunk lies a mummy, an Egyptian style mummy. Deeply shocked we stand around staring at it intently, hoping in vain to see some sign of life. Neatly tucked under the feet and head, the spotless white sheet clings to a still and lifeless human form!
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