One Week

My heels are cracked, my skin is darker, and my hair is lighter.  I have blue bruises on my knees from misjudging spatial relations while getting into autorickshaws.  My legs are dotted with mosquito bites, and the tan skin at the corner of my eyes radiates pale lines from smiling and squinting in the sun.  I have a little extra padding around my hips and tummy from four months of eating rice.  Two fingers on my left hand are calloused from playing sitar, and my biceps have grown (from concave to a little hint of muscle) from hanging on while riding the bus.

Mostly, on the outside, I still look like me.  But I have grown, learned and changed over these months, in ways other than my physical appearance.  Some changes I am aware of: I now feel much more comfortable finding my way around a city; I have gained confidence in myself and my abilities (if I can cross the street, no sweat, in Hyderabad, I feel like I can do anything in the world); and I have come to enjoy being alone and independent amongst a crowd of strangers, now appreciating my usually-solitary commute to school.

As for learning during my time here, never have I felt that I learned so much in such a short period of time.  In my classes, I learned about urban inequality in Indian cities I had barely heard of months before; I learned about secularism, Hindu nationalism, Muslim politics, and Partition; I learned about the specifics of Bhopal and other disasters in India; and I learned to speak, read, and write Hindi.

Although I certainly learned a lot from my academics here, I learned even more outside of the classroom.  I learned that in India, plans are never 100 percent sure until they actually happen, and even then you never know; I learned that there is a lot of hawking here, of two kinds: hawking goods, and hawking spit; and I learned about certain foods giving you “the heat,” an ayurvedic concept that people use to explain ailments ranging from boils to digestion troubles. 

I have grown accustomed to so many things that are part of daily life here.  I am used to people’s syntax and accents in English, when they say things like “Have you reached?” to inquire whether you have gotten to your home, and when they give compliments such as “You are looking too nice;” I am used to the theme songs of Aji’s favorite Marathi TV serials; I am used to the onion seller’s loud, nasal cry as he roams around the neighborhood selling goods; I am used to billboards with Kareena Kapoor, Aamir Khan, or Mahesh Babu endorsing a product; and I am used to wearing Indian dress, keeping covered up even when it’s 110 degrees Fahrenheit. 

As I prepare to leave, mentally and physically, I know that I will miss many things about India.  There are things that I have identified that I will miss: fresh sugar cane juice; delicious mangoes (it is finally mango season!); cute cows, buffalo, goats, dogs, and pigs in the street; my host mom’s dosa; the lovely friends I have made here; and people’s understanding that we do not control everything in the world.  I’m sure that when I am in the U.S., I will also realize that I miss other things.  Perhaps I will miss the noises, sounds, and smells.  Maybe I will miss negotiating the price of an auto ride, or navigating the busy street. 

I am currently trying to prepare myself for my return home and the reverse culture shock I have been warned about, yet I am simultaneously wary of unnecessarily worrying in advance about the transition.  I am looking forward to many things about returning home.  I am excited to sleep in my bed, to be physically much more comfortable, to see my boyfriend and my friends at school, and to eat my father’s cheesebread and my mother’s chocolate-chip waffles.  But I am also scared.  I am scared of losing the skills I’ve learned in India; scared that having idealized the things I miss about the U.S., I will have a hard time experiencing reality; and scared of not feeling at home in my home country. 

I know that whatever my transition is like, I am lucky to have friends and family who will support me.  And as I try to balance thinking about coming home with being fully present in my last week in India, I am grateful for all of the experiences I have had this semester.  It was a challenging, exciting experience for me, and I am very glad I chose to live here.

I hope that some day soon, I can return to this vibrant, maddening, exciting, beautiful, fascinating country.  For now, I will travel to Darjeeling with Iris, come back to Hyderabad and pack up, and leave early next Monday morning, one week from now.

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“Is this what hell feels like?”

Disclaimer:  The following blog post may seem like a whiny rant.  That is because it is basically a whiny rant.  I recognize that I am an extremely privileged individual, and that many people in India, and in the rest of the world, sleep in far worse conditions than I did last night.  I ask you to please suspend your judgment of me while reading this (including the less politically correct bits)!

I have written about difficulties sleeping before, in my blogpost about “night noises.”  More recently, the neighbors across the street had wedding celebrations that lasted for six nights; you haven’t really lived life until you’ve been woken at 4 a.m. to the sound of loud drums and a badly-played horn.  Once I realized that it was a wedding, not a marching band sacrificing a bleating goat, I put my pillow over my head and tried to fall back to sleep. 

Lately, the heat, not the noise, keeps me awake at night.  Last night was my least favorite night since I have been in India.  Iris and I each got around 2 or 3 hours of sleep total. 

It started with a long, tiring day; I came home with a headache, and by evening I was mildly nauseous, probably from a combination of exhaustion, dehydration and pollution. 

After an early dinner, Iris and I decided to go to bed at 10.  It was very hot, but the fan in our room was on, so our habit of pre-bedtime showers helped cool us off slightly.  However, as we lay there, we realized that our mattresses were even hotter than the air.  Because our room is on the corner of the building, the sun heats it up during the day, and it takes hours to cool down. 

Before the room could cool off enough, the power went out.  Sometimes when the power goes out (and the fan turns off) there is a slight breeze that cools us down.  Last night, the air was perfectly still.  Iris and I lay in the stuffy, oven-like room (my best guess is that the room was between 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit), hoping that the outage wouldn’t last.  I was dizzy, nauseous, and felt like I was burning up.  Unfortunately, the lack of breeze also meant that the mosquitoes were free to fly exactly as they chose, and they chose to fly towards me.  Usually, when I hear the high-pitched whine of a winged vampire, I wave my hand to swat it away.  This time, though, I didn’t have the energy to raise a finger.  Have my blood, little suckers. 

After some time, the fan switched on – the power was back!  But our joy was short-lived, as it soon shut off again.  When it was clear that this power outage business was not a temporary matter, the apartment building watchman/caretaker switched on the generator.  The generator powers one ceiling fan and one light in the main room of our apartment.  So, Iris and I traipsed out to the main room, our pillows in tow.  We dunked our heads under the sink to cool off a little, and lay on the tile floor in the main room, directly under the fan.  This was better, somewhat.  But it was still too hot to sleep.  Instead of the tiles cooling us, our bodies were heating up the floor.  

The power switched on again – for two minutes – enough time for the watchman to switch the generator off and for us to go back to our room.  This off and on routine continued for hours.  The watchman is only supposed to switch the generator on when he expects the power outage to last for at least 15 minutes, I believe because it is bad for the generator to run it for a shorter time.  So, there were many stretches of time where we were baking in the still, hot air.  As we lay on the floor, we raised our waterbottles over our heads and dumped the contents on our bodies.  This was successful at turning us into soaking wet puddles – for perhaps half an hour, until the hot air dried it all up.   

At some point, Iris asked, “is this what hell feels like?”  We lost track of time.  I remember looking at my watch at 2:30, 2:50, 3:15, 3:50 a.m.  I believe we dozed off for a little while. 

After one particularly horrible stretch with no generator, we finally heard the familiar low rumble kick in.  Iris and I raised our hands in the air, two atheist Jews saying things like “sweet Jesus” and “praise the Lord.”

The whole night was a blur of heat, delirious conversations, attempted sleep, and hysterical laughter at the situation.  At one point, my laughter turned to tears, except nothing came out of my eyes because my body was not eager to waste the little salt and water reserves it had.  At some hour (maybe 4 a.m.) I realized that the liters of water I was drinking were going through my body without me feeling better.  Remembering my pediatrician uncle’s advice on balancing electrolytes, I went to the kitchen and started licking salt out of my hand.  I felt kind of like a horse who has found saltlick, except that most horses aren’t laughing hysterically to themselves as their clothes stick to their body with sweat.

At 6:30 a.m., our host family woke up, and the day’s noises began: that was the end of our “sleep.”  Iris and I have been through a lot together already, but after last night, we felt like comrade soldiers, bound together in wartime.  There are many things I will miss when I fly home in two weeks, but the summer heat of India is not on that list.    

P.S. My family’s recent visit was wonderful, and a good time was had by all!

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“The current went”

As the summer heat increases in India, there is also an increase in power cuts and water shortages.  As I have mentioned in other posts, in Andhra Pradesh there is a system of rolling blackouts (rotational load shedding), whereby different areas of the city have scheduled power cuts at different times in the day.  In April, my neighborhood has two scheduled cuts of one and a half hours each, one from 11am to 12:30pm, and one from 5pm to 6:30pm.  Three hours a day of scheduled cuts is a very small amount compared to the villages; the city of Hyderabad is given priority over villages and more rural regions.  Apparently, if you live in a village, you sometimes have power cuts of over 12 hours.

In addition, there are also unscheduled power cuts.  At home, we would call these “power outages” or we would say “the power went out,” but I have noticed that many people here say things like, “the current went.”  Anyway, these unscheduled outages have been happening with increasing frequency over the past few weeks.  Sometimes there are also water shortages in Hyderabad; my neighborhood has been pretty lucky so far, but in places with shortages, people line up to fill their water vessels and containers at a water tanker.

I am certainly more conscious of the electricity, water, food, and other resources I consume here.  In a nation with so many people who do not have enough, wasting seems even more of a crime.  At home, I always turn lights off when I leave the room, but I sometimes do things like leave the water running while I wash my face.  Here, I try to be more conscious and careful with my consumption – something I anticipate bringing back with me to the U.S. 

On a lighter note, some amusing things have happened because of this increase in power cuts.  One evening, the power kept going out, returning for five minutes or so before going out again.  After a few hours of this, I decided to get ready for bed.  I fumbled around and found my toothbrush and toothpaste, I put a little water on my toothbrush, put on some toothpaste, and right before I put the brush in my mouth, the power returned.  I glanced down at the toothbrush in my hand, and I noticed that the toothpaste was white.  “Hmmm,” I thought, “that’s funny.  Isn’t my toothpaste blue?”  I went to check the tube of toothpaste, and instead of reading “Colgate” on the outside, I saw the name “Odomos.”  I had almost brushed my teeth with my mosquito repellant cream! 

Another night when the power was out, I was in our room, and Iris was brushing her teeth.  I made my way towards the door, holding my phone up to see, and saw my phone’s light reflected on the glossy paint of the door.  But as I reached out to open the door, I bumped into human flesh, and another hand holding a phone up for light!  Iris screamed loudly, as startled as I was by the reflection-turned-human being.  Maybe next time the power goes out and we need to get ready for bed, we can play a game of Marco-Polo so there are no surprises!

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One Month, Sitar, and Kerala!

First, some updates: one month from today, I fly back to the United States!  Before that, I have one more week of classes, papers, projects, and tests, one week where my family is visiting, one week of final exams, and one week of travel.

Last night we had a farewell dinner (although we have another month, we will all be busy with finals and travel).  The CIEE students, staff, host families, language tutors, and extra-curricular class teachers all came together to celebrate a wonderful semester.

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Iris, Prerna, and I before leaving for dinner

My sitar teacher was in attendance, and for much of the evening he played sitar along with a tabla player and a flute player.  At one point I went up to the stage to say hello, and he handed his sitar off to me and told me to play!  Below is a link to a short clip of my impromptu performance, playing what amounts to an “oldie” here – an old Bollywood song called “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh.”

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B6Mqrd13IESzMUZ5QmpLZnNtLW8&usp=sharing

Last weekend, I traveled to Kerala with some friends.  First, we went to Munnar, a hill-station known for its beautiful tea and spice plantations.  After a terrifying, hairpin turn-filled drive, we arrived in paradise.

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An evening stroll through the tea

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A nice man we met who had two cute puppies!

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The puppies adored Kit

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Iris and I went on an early morning adventure, hiking into the tea plantations

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The vibrant green in Munnar was a lovely change from the less-luscious Hyderabad

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Iris and I rested in the shade and looked at this gorgeous view

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Me!

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My three travel companions and I went on an afternoon trek with a guide through various spice plantations – we saw coffee, cacao, cardamom, ginger, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and more

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Cacao, betel nut, and pepper left out to sun-dry.  We tasted the fruit around the cocoa beans, and the dried cacao itself – both were delicious!

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Our guide opened up a nutmeg fruit and showed us this nutmeg seed inside. 

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Sunset in Munnar

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After Munnar, we went to Alleppey; this was the view from our room

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We watched the sunset from our porch!

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The next morning, we went on a tour of the backwaters

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People who live along the backwaters use the waterway channels there like roads.  This is a traveling medicine/pharmacy boat.  We saw several people waiting at bus stops on the bank of a channel for the bus-boat to come by.

Kerala is a beautiful state, and it was lovely to spend a weekend relaxing and enjoying the outdoors!

 

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Tidbits (Part III)

  • Carl Kasell is leaving Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me!  And This American Life will no longer be distributed by PRI (but don’t worry, the show will go on).  I have been listening to a lot of podcasts in India.
  • Tomorrow’s forecast in Hyderabad is for a high of 106 degrees Fahrenheit.  And 108 degrees the day after that.
  • Related: Prerna and I made banana nutella ice cream this weekend.  It was yummy but melted very quickly.
  • In the U.S., the “wedding season” occurs because people want nice weather for their wedding.  According to my host family, In India, “wedding season” is the time of year when there are a lot of lucky/compatible dates astrologically.
  • Elections are coming up in a couple weeks, which means there is more police presence.  More police presence means you find out all sorts of things, like the fact that the legal capacity for auto-rickshaw passengers is actually three people.
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Pushkar, Agra, and Holi!

You may have noticed that I have been updating my blog less frequently; that is because I have gotten much busier recently!  So, this post is going to be mostly pictures.

Last weekend, I traveled to north India with some friends.  We visited Pushkar and Agra, and then came home to celebrate Holi in Hyderabad.  It was a wonderful weekend!

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Pushkar had a beautiful (sacred) lake surrounded by many temples.

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Walking through the town, late evening

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We went on a sunrise camel ride! The camel I rode on was named Lala.

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On the return part of the ride, after sunrise

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In Agra, we went to the Taj Mahal at sunrise.  Pictures and words cannot do it justice; I teared up when I saw the Taj.  I have never had such a strong reaction to a building before!

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It was also amazing how much different the Taj Mahal looked over the course of the few hours we spent there.  It was always beautiful, but the changing light was neat to see.

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At Agra Fort, with my wonderful roomie Iris! You can vaguely see the Taj Mahal in the background.

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We arrived back in Hyd on Monday morning, and went to campus to celebrate Holi!  If you can’t tell, this is me (after being covered with many layers of colored powder and water)!

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Overall, an exhausting but fun-filled weekend!

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International Women’s Day, and some thoughts on being a white woman in India

Saturday was International Women’s Day.  I have started attending meetings and events of a group called Hyderabad for Feminism, and on Saturday, Iris and I joined them in a Women’s Day street harassment “mirror mob.”  About 50 of us (mostly women, but about 10 or so men) went to bus stops and other public spaces around the city, to raise awareness and generate conversation around street harassment.

At each location our group went to, one group member started by playing a drum to get people’s attention.  Then five different small groups acted out various street harassment scenes one after the other, with each group freezing before the next group started.  The kicker: the people being harassed in the skits were all men.  By portraying women harassing men, we hoped to get people’s attention and help people understand why street harassment is problematic.

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One of the mirror mob scenes

After the scenes were over, everyone stayed frozen while one of the group leaders spoke to the crowd about what we were doing.  Then everyone unfroze and held up signs (some in Telugu, some in English) that said things like, “Respect my body, Respect my mind, Respect me.”  Finally, members of the group engaged with the audience, answering questions and listening to stories.

My role for the day was as part of the photography team.  Along with three other people, I took photos and video of the day.  I believe that at some point, a short video will be put together, so if that happens I may share it here.  Although I would have loved to participate in more visible ways, Iris and I decided that it was not wise for us to be actors, for multiple reasons.  One main reason was that local press covered the event, and we were told firmly by CIEE during orientation to avoid having our picture in the newspapers, especially for something “controversial.”  I didn’t avoid this altogether, though – there is a picture of me in one newspaper with my camera in front of my face (http://epaper.deccanchronicle.com/articledetailpage.aspx?id=394300), and a picture in another (with an article explaining it all) where you can see the back of my french-braided head (http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/look-in-the-mirror/article5770008.ece).

There was a range of responses from people who watched the “mirror mob.”  Some people thanked group members for providing a space to discuss street harassment.  At least one person cried in a conversation with a group member.  Some people weren’t very receptive or interested, but overall, it seemed that our short “performance” got many people thinking and talking.  At this point in India, part of the struggle for feminism is to get people talking about things that are “taboo” or not discussed much.  One member of HFF (she was probably about 18 years old) said that this was the first time she had actually talked about the street harassment she had experienced for years.

Saturday was one of my favorite days in India so far.  Iris and I made lots of friends, talked to interesting people, and had lots of fun.  Being part of such an amazing group of activists was inspiring, and by the end of the day, I was exhausted but happier than I had felt in a while.

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At Nampally train station, with a strong, independent, hilarious Auntie; she was part of the group for the day, and was the mother of one of the group leaders.

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I have been planning for a while to write a blog post about my “visible identity” as a white woman in India.  Even before I arrived in India, I anticipated that I would stand out and experience at least some harassment and unwanted attention here.

I first want to say that it is impossible for me to separate out the various factors of my visible identity, or the environment I am in.  As a young white woman with long, (comparatively) light hair, living in Hyderabad, India, I cannot know for sure what part of my experience comes from being white, what is being a woman, what is living in a city, what is living in India, and so on.  All I know is what experiences (positive and negative) I have had here.

When thinking about my visible identity here, I also think about the context of my skin color.  For instance, in India, white skin is intricately linked to both British colonialism and Hollywood.  I am a minority here, but in most ways I am a privileged minority.  When I enter the main gate of my university, the guards rarely ask to see my ID, while they stop my Indian friends more often.  So, although I feel that in some ways I can better understand the experience of being a minority, or being visibly “different,” I am very aware that my experience is in most ways one of privilege, not oppression.  However, having the visible identity I have, in the place I am living, is not always an easy experience.

In general, wherever I go, I am stared at.  Although India is an extremely diverse country – people speak dozens of different languages, there is religious diversity, and there are many different castes, tribes, and skin colors – there are not many white-skinned people walking around Hyderabad.

People (of all genders, but slightly more men) stare curiously at my pale skin and fair hair.  They stare as I walk down the street, they stare on the bus, and they stare as I pass by in an auto.  Men on motorcycles frequently drive closer to the shared auto I am in so that they can stare.  Although I have mostly grown accustomed to the staring, it still bothers me every now and then.  Unlike in the United States, where people usually look away when you catch them staring, people here usually continue staring.  Even if I glare or scowl, they stare.  Every now and then, I am tempted to scream, or make an outrageous face and wave my hands, or just do something other than walk along calmly, not acknowledging the stares, day after day.

People also take lots of pictures.  This is almost always men.  Sometimes they ask to take a picture with us or of us (I usually decline), and sometimes they just take a picture.  One of my friends had an upsetting experience where she and her friends agreed to a picture with some young men, and one of the men groped her while the picture was being taken.  It is hard to know whether the pictures are usually just from curiosity – as I said, there are very few white-skinned people here – or, whether they are sexualized in the minds of the picture-takers.  According to friends here, many Indian men have a skewed view of white-skinned women because of what they see in movies.  Apparently, fair skin is considered more attractive here, and Western women are sexualized.

On a day-to-day basis, I don’t usually feel threatened or extremely uncomfortable here.  Although the constant staring and the picture-taking can make me feel mildly uncomfortable, I know that most people are just curious, or confused, or surprised.  However, I have had a number of experiences that have left me shaken or angry.

One such experience was when I was traveling home alone, in a shared auto along the main road.  I was sitting with a few men and some girls, when a man got in the auto.  He said something to me in Telugu that I didn’t understand, but when I shrugged and shook my head to show that I couldn’t understand him, he continued to talk at me.  I don’t know what he was saying, but the tone of his voice, the look on his face, his body language, and the way that the young women in the car seemed very uncomfortable made me start to feel uncomfortable.  When I got out of the auto at my stop, the man followed me out of the car.  I asked the driver how much the ride cost, but before he could answer, the man told me he would pay for me.  The driver was smiling, seeming amused by the situation, but I ignored the man and asked again how much it was.  After I paid, and continued to ignore the man (who was asking where I was going, and telling me he would walk me wherever it was), I took out my cell phone, called Iris, and walked away.  The man followed me for about ten seconds, but eventually he left.

This kind of experience doesn’t usually make me feel seriously concerned for my safety; I am never alone in places where there aren’t lots of people around, I never travel alone at night, and I always carry my cell phone and have made numerous fake “calls” to ward off unwanted interactions.  However, even though I rationally know that I am not in seriously “dangerous” situations, street harassment still makes me extremely uncomfortable, shaken, and angry.

I have had several other unpleasant experiences (some physical, but mostly verbal street harassment) that I will not recount here, but I have also had plenty of lovely encounters with strangers, including men.  A young man helped me cross the street on a particularly busy day.  A taxi driver told me about his family in the United States, and we had a nice conversation about education and studying in different countries.  In India, just as in anywhere in the world, most people will treat strangers with respect and kindness.  And in Hyderabad, as in any city in the world, some people will act inappropriately or fail to respect other individuals.  However, just because the world will never be perfect, doesn’t mean that we should not try to improve it every day.

Joining with a group of 50 energized feminists, of a range of genders, ages, and sexualities, was an empowering experience for me.  Finally, I could act in response to my experiences.

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