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Published: August 17th 2009
Awaiting Their Fate
These coloured candles would soon be added to the fire on the altar at a Mayan New Year ceremony
Pitch Black Arrivals and Coughing Fit Hell
Arriving in Guatemala didn't go quite according to plan. Instead of getting to the capital in plenty of time to find somewhere to stay, or even better to move straight on, we arrived in Guatemala City in the dark and in the rain! Guatemala City isn't exactly a great place to wander around with a backpack during the day, never mind at night, so we placed ourselves at the mercy of a taxi driver we hoped was at least half honest and headed for a place to stay. Luckily he turned out to be fairly decent and dropped us somewhere near a few cheap hotels. Tracey was still suffering with the suspicious 'Piggy Flu' like symptoms she had managed to smuggle over three international borders in the past 2 days so she crawled into bed while David risked-it back on the mean streets to get some cash and food.
The next day we were up and off to Antigua on one of Guatemala's notorious chicken busses. Chicken busses exist throughout all of Central America, but in Guatemala and particularly in the capital, driving one is something of an
What's The Masking Price?
Masks for sale in the wonderful market at Chichicastenango
occupational hazard. A horrifying amount of chicken bus drivers are killed every week by gangs when they refuse to pay-up the 'protection' money demanded of them. At the same time these busses, which are just knackered old yellow school busses from the USA, are the target of highway robbers. The busses have a particularly great design if you are planning on pulling weapons on a bunch of passengers and making-off with as much booty as possible: They have a lovely wide door at the front and another handily placed door at the back. This means your common-all-garden robber can jump on with his gang, wave around a weapon, stroll through the bus grabbing whatever he can and swiftly depart through the rear door, all in a matter of minutes. More on the busses later, but for now; picture a happy David and Tracey alighting from the bus in Antigua, lamenting the first few spits of rain they had seen in a LONG time and heading for a hostel.
Soggy Clothes, Volcanoes and an Earthquake!
We spent the afternoon walking around Antigua and enjoying the old historical buildings left-over from the colonial era. Antigua is a bit of
Volcan Pacaya Attempt 1
Dave tries not to be blown into the lava by the horrendous driving wind and rain
a tourist hotspot and therefore a bit full of wealthy tour groups, pricey shops and expensive restaurants, but it does have a certain charm and its location in the middle of three volcanoes is beautiful; or so we were told. We had to rely on pictures when imagining the view as it turns out those few spits of rain we felt on arrival were actually the start of the rainy season! We hadn't expected this. Suddenly all our "let's follow the sun for 2 years" planning went very pear-shaped! There wasn't much we could do about it other than curse ourselves for having overlooked such a key fact and get on with the show. So, the next day saw us heading off to climb one of Guatemala's many active volcanoes and the only one with actual molten lava pouring down its slopes. (Tracey, by the way, was still coughing like a 90 year-old with a 50-a-day habit, but we decided as she could still move, she didn't have 'Piggy-itis', so we dosed her up with tablets and got on with it.)
Pacaya is 2552m tall and although most trips leave from Antigua it is actually closer to Guatemala City.
Time To Turn Up The Heat
Tracey singes her eyebrows in the name of a fry-up!
We decided that although you CAN do this by yourself, on this occasion we’d go with a tour. This meant a guaranteed ride each way and a decent guide up the volcano. Arriving at the base we set off up the path in light rain with hoards of children desperately flogging wooden walking-poles to anyone who glanced in their direction and bits of plastic to those without rain-gear. Unfortunately the rain got heavier and heavier and by the time we reached the pumice stone scree on the slopes of Pacaya we could barely see 30m ahead and it was blimming cold. We had tonnes of rain-gear, plus a very English umbrella, but by this point we were sodden. All of this was forgotten however when we crested a hill and saw the glow of a molten river tumbling down the slopes a little way ahead of us. A sandle-wearing fool in our group began to regret her choice of footwear as the razor-sharp rocks not only started cutting through flimsy shoes, but also started heating up. If it hadn’t been raining she would have been in trouble. The sight of the lava was incredible. We had to keep reminding ourselves
"Enjoying" our mostly cooked, water sodden, volcano fried eggs. Without the rain this would have worked a treat.
this was pouring out of a live volcano. We had taken a frying pan, egg and bread with us to test just how hot the lava was. This little experiment would have worked very well, were it not for the rain! We ended up with a kind of semi-fried, semi-poached mess on soggy, disintegrating bread…but it was warm, and for that we gave thanks! We were so wet by the time we got back to our bus that we could actually pour water out of our boots, but the rain did make the lava show up brilliantly on the side of the mountain so we tried to look on the bright-side!
Tracey also experienced her first earthquake in Antigua. It was somewhere around 6 on the Richter scale and lasted for about 50 seconds. She ended up feeling quite seasick for a good half an hour afterwards because the rocking motion had gone on for so long!
Thank God They Call It Shey-La
Next-up was Quetzaltenango; luckily called Xela by just about everyone. Here we planned to spend 4 or 5 weeks volunteering and seeing other bits of Guatemala. Our arrival was made very easy by
Our Language School
The courtyard (and classroom) at Celas Maya in Xela. David is in the green t-shirt in the cente
Danny and Jillian, a couple we met on our swim up Pacaya. They were already living in Xela which meant the usual trouble of finding somewhere to stay and how to get there, while being bombarded by taxi touts, was completely done away with!
Once in Xela David decided that before placing himself in a room full of Spanish-speaking under-tens in the name of charity he would like to take some Spanish lessons. Xela is a Mecca for language students and just about every other building is home to some kind of language school. Swine Flu in neighbouring Mexico, “The Economic Crisis” and the fact it was rainy season meant most schools were pretty empty so we chose Celas Maya, which actually seemed to have some pupils! We also found a home for a month. We had been looking forward to this for ages. A room we could call our own, a place to unpack all our bags and a kitchen to cook some tasty, healthy food for a while. Because so many people go to Xela to study, most of the hostels have long-stay deals. We ended up in a little place called Don Diego, which was clean,
Finally... Some Vitamins
Our province had the most fertile land in Guatemala so the markets were overflowing with cheap fruit and veggies
quiet and homley. We felt a bit ‘old’ not staying at the party hostel a few blocks away, but for once we just wanted a bit of peace and quiet.
Language school was pretty intense as they believe in full immersion. This meant no asking questions in English…or certainly no replies in English anyway. David found this very frustrating for the first few days, but he eventually started to see its benefits and by the end of week one was daring to admit he was actually quite enjoying it and signed-up for a second week. Tracey found the lessons really useful but also frustrating as she realised how much she STILL had to learn to be anywhere near ‘fluent’.
During this first week in Xela we had to do some rapid clothes buying. Xela is 2335m above sea level…and, as we now knew, it was rainy season. This meant COLD and VERY wet. Luckily Guatemala has developed a thriving trade in second-hand clothes, predominantly from the States. These shops are known as Pacas and they are brilliant. Tracey managed to buy a whole outfit, including jeans and a cashmere jumper for less than a
Pint Please Bar Wench
The outside of the hugely popular Salon Tecun where Tracey worked for two weeks. In the background is the town square
tenner and David picked up a thick woollen jersey for the price of a Mars Bar.
Time To Earn Some Cash
During this first week we also finally accepted that our stash of money, that had seemed so plentiful when we set off over a year-and-a-half ago, wasn’t going to be enough to see us through to the end of 2 years. In reality we had know this for a while, but we’d been ploughing on, ostrich-style, with our heads well and truly in the sand. What was the solution? To get a job of course! We ummed and erred about this for a while and decided it might be worth a go, so in the end Tracey wandered into a bar that she’d heard referred to as the 'Gringo Bar' and just asked for a job. Skip forward 2 hours and following an interview with the manager, shift one was lined-up for the following Friday. The so-called ‘Gringo’ bar turned out to be full of very non-gringo Guatemalans with a huge appetite for booze and Spanish accents ranging from odd to impossible! Two weeks of almost full-time employment earned less than a day’s temping would at
Making Picture Frames For Mother
This was a real success. The women in the shelter leave their homes with nothing, so we took photos of their children and then made frames from macaroni
home, but it paid for all our living expenses during those 2 weeks with a bit to spare for shopping! In the end Tracey got the hang of the accents and how to handle the lecherous customers who thought her blonde hair and blue eyes were something of a novelty, and the shifts there probably did more good than any Spanish lesson to really get the language going!
Good Deed Time
Meantime, during the days we were fully into our volunteer work for an organisation called Nuevos Horizontes (New Horizons). This charity was set up to help female victims of domestic violence and their children. The charity provides a refuge for women who manage to escape their homes, counselling, medical help and assistance getting back on their feet and starting a new life. The women’s children also benefit. They are looked after, given healthy, nutritious meals and sent to school. Our job was to play with, entertain, encourage, teach and exhaust the children in the shelter. Some were not old enough to go to school, others couldn’t leave the confines of the refuge until everyone was sure angry family members wouldn’t be waiting to try and take
Too Cute For Words
Darwin, who liked to eat everything, found Tracey's extra-salty home made playdough a little unpleasant
them home. These children were often much smaller than they should have been and their teeth were all black and rotten. We were told some of them may also have been abused at home and we had to be careful how we approached and played with the children until we knew how they would react to us.
Having David there was a big bonus for the children and the women too. He was a good example of how a man, even one twice their size, can be fun, gentle and caring. For some of the children this may have been their first experience of such a thing. Once we had been there a few weeks and they had got used to us, they loved how David could pick them up, twirl them round and put them down again, especially when he pretended to nearly drop them on the way down! Tracey got in some good teaching practice with some of the projects we did with the children. Because the rooms are quite big and cold we wanted to decorate a little, so we created a huge alphabet with a food or drink representing each letter. This turned out to
Tracey explains how teachers eat children who don't wash their hands
be a bit more of a project than we had first anticipated and took a good few weeks of perseverance to get all the pictures made! In the end the kids loved helping us stick it all up on the wall in the right order.
One of the best parts of visiting the refuge was buying fruit for the children and women there. In Xela the fruit and vegetables seemed ridiculously cheap to us, but when families are deciding between a whole sack of corn flour, or 4 apples and a mango, which do you think they chose? This goes part way to explaining why the children were so undernourished. We had great fun searching out the best bargains at the markets and became such regulars with one lady that on one occasion Tracey even managed to get a better price than the locals!
After 4 weeks working in the shelter, making picture frames, playdough, cookies and plenty of Lego castles, it was hard to say goodbye to the children and the women with whom we had slowly made friends, but all good things must end and, happily, the next volunteers were queuing up to get started.
Drinking Up A Storm
Us at a "Rainy Season" fancy dress party in Xela
Thunder and Lightening...Very, Very Frightening
During our month in Xela we tried to make the most of a few weekends away sight-seeing, though the first weekend we were thwarted by the opportunity to dress-up and party instead! Never passing up the chance to look as ridiculous as possible in the name of charity we decided to pop-along to a fancy-dress fund-raiser. By now we were getting used to the daily downpours so the “welcome to the rainy season” theme was totally appropriate. We had hardly any money, or time to get ready, so with a few bits of card, some balloons and some sellotape we crafted a storm cloud and a weather pattern and headed off for some fun. You can decide for yourself how little effort everyone else must have put into their outfits when you hear our little attempt was enough to win us 1st and 2nd prize!
A couple of trips we did manage included a visit to a bizarre church in a village called San Andres de Xecun; a hike to a sacred Mayan crater lake; a trip to some lovely hot spings at Fuentes Georginas; a bike ride from hell for Mayan
You Can't Miss This One
We took a short bus ride from Xela to visit this bizarre Church in San Andres Xecul
New Year and a shopping spree in the market village of Chichicastenango. We also climbed La Muela, Xela's closest sizeable hill for a great view of the surrounding valley. Actually we climbed it twice as the first time we saw nothing but clouds.
The church was a spur of the minute decision and, like a lot of other things in Xela, perfectly easy to visit by yourself, despite tour companies offering trips out to see it. All you have to do is negotiate the bus terminal and hoards of ayudantes (bus boys) trying to get you on their bus even if it isn’t going the right way! As well as the church façade itself, there is a wonderful view of the valley if you climb up the narrow streets of San Andres de Xecul, to the top of the hill.
Sacred Mists and Mystic Flowers
The Mayan Crater Lake (Laguna Chicabal) was an amazing sight. We jumped off a bus in the village where the tracks starts at around 11.30am and hiked up the side of the volcano to the national park which protects the lake and its surroundings. It really would have been better to
We had this eerie Mayan ceremonial lake all to ourselves
set off very early because, as always, the clouds and rain had started to threaten from around 11. This meant we didn’t have the views from the path, across the valley to Guatemala’s most active volcano (Santiguito), but on the upside it meant that we had the whole place to ourselves. The Maya had only recently been celebrating one of their most important festivals so all around the edge of the lake were offerings of flowers. This place is considered so sacred that when there are Mayan people there worshipping it is forbidden to take photographs. Sometime tourists are even banned from visiting during ceremonies. Because of the weather the whole place had a particularly ethereal feel to it that day. At first we had no idea how big the lake was, or how much of a crater we had climbed down into, but gradually the mists cleared across to the other side, revealing a wall of forest all around us. It was wonderful being there in total silence and solitude.
Another trip we foolishly signed-up for was a cycle tour to a small village on the outskirts of Xela to celebrate the Mayan New
Le Tour De Xela
Our best day in Xela - a cycle trip to a small village to celebrate the Mayan New Year
Year. We stupidly convinced ourselves that as the itinerary was a cycle trip to the village, followed by the ceremony, then a bus back to Xela, that the way there would be downhill and the bus would bring us back up. Oh, no...this bike ride was almost entirely uphill and 80% of the time we were using farmers’ muddy tracks rather than roads. It was actually one of the best things we did while we were in Xela, but crickey were we tired at the end of it! The scenery was breathtaking, as were a lot of the hills. We spent quite a bit of time pushing instead of pedalling and we were very pleased when our mega-strong, mega-fit, totally crazy Mexican guide eventually had to admit defeat and get off his bike to push too!
When we finally arrived at the Shaman’s house it all became SO worth it. We witnessed a tradition that has been carried out for centuries, right back to the time of the ancient Maya. It has changed slightly now with the incorporation of the cross into the ceremony. Many Maya also loosely follow some Christian beliefs after Catholicism was introduced by the Spanish
As Has Been Done For Centuries
As the altar burned down, the holy men blessed all those who requested it. This was quite an emotional time for some
The brilliant thing about this ceremony was the total lack of other tourists. We had assumed, because of the rare opportunity to be able to watch and, in the end, participate in the ceremony, there would be a lot of people on our trip, but it was actually just us, the guide and the bike company owner! By the end of the ceremony we had been invited to take part in some of the ritualistic chanting and walking around the burning altar. We had thrown various symbolic tokens into the flames and listened to the shaman chanting in Spanish and in Quiche. Most of the crowd were blessed by the priest and, in a somewhat disgusting tradition, the priest had spat all over them with a mixture of green herbs and alcohol! This "sliming" of the crowd was the final part of a cleansing and protecting blessing where the shaman passed his energies onto the women/children/men before him, cleaned out their evil spirits and then embibed a mouthful of herbs and alcohol before blowing it all over them. We can only describe the force of this blow as the kind of expulsion you see on a film or
Blending In Nicely
As the sacred altar grew so did our involvement. Here Tracey joins a ritual just for the ladies
cartoon when someone drinks something and it tastes totally disgusting or way too spicy. From the scrunched-up ‘yuck’ faces of the children waiting for the hail of green saliva to rain down on them we got a fairly good idea of how horrible it tasted/smelt!
The final part of our amazing day was an invitation to join the congregation for a meal which the women had been preparing all day. Also available were copious amounts of moonshine in innocuous little wooden cups. One sip of the knock-your-head-off rocket fuel and you realized why the cups were so small, though this didn’t stop some of the men from going back for plenty of re-fills. The old man providing the musical accompaniment to proceedings could barely stand by the time we climbed back on our bikes for the mostly downhill (with dubious brakes) ride back to Xela!
How Low Can You Go?
Chichicastenango is one of those places that is so well known there is no way you can avoid it being ‘touristy’ if you want to go on market day…but it is also one of those places where it is still worth going, even though camera-toting gringos
We bought some beautiful fabrics in the market at Chichicastenango. This market rewarded people who could bargain well
can be found on every corner. Luckily, many people come and go by tour bus, so getting there early, or even better, late, is a distinct advantage to doing it by yourself. This means another chicken bus ride, and a bus that is specifically targeted by pick-pockets because of the number of tourists who travel this way. We actually lost track of the number of people we spoke to who had had bags snatched, pockets rifled through or bags slashed and emptied while on their own laps without noticing, etc. etc. By this time we had adopted the ‘do it like the locals’ approach and always had a bit of money ready to hand over to any bandits boarding the bus. Meanwhile we were ready to fling our camera on the floor under our feet and stuff wedding rings into seat cracks at a moment’s notice. We also took to carrying the camera chip in Tracey’s bra…just in case. Thankfully we never experienced the bandits, though David did catch a professional thief trying to get into his pocket as we boarded one bus. He stopped when caught, sat in a seat as if he was a regular passenger, then slipped
Is 1000 Degrees OK...
... or should we turn it up some more?
off quietly before the bus even left.
In Chichi, among the beautiful indigenous cloths and masks we did the first bit of shopping we had done for ages. We bought far more than we had intented to and realised the benefit of being there towards the end of the day when a woman started chasing us down the street with a beautiful blanket, dropping her price with every few paces.
So That's What It Looks Like!
We managed to shoe-horn in another trip to Antigua while we were in Xela too. We had been so disappointed by the lack of visibility on our trip up Pacaya that we wanted to give it one more go! We sorted a trip for the morning, before the cloud and rain started moving in and we were duly rewarded. This time we saw that we were actually up one of several active volcanoes in the area and that as we headed for flowing lava on our hillside, across the valley huge plumes of smoke were billowing out of another volcano called El Fuego (the fire). On this climb we could see the huge scars of ancient lava flows down the
side of Pacaya's mountain and into forests, stopping dangerously close to a village…and this time we could see all the way to the dangerously volatile crater of Pacaya too. It was more difficult reaching the lava on this trip as it moves every day. We had to cross a lot more lose, sharp rocks: a lot of them were pretty hot and we did get the odd whiff of melting rubber from shoes! We didn’t bother with a frying pan this time, but we did take marshmallows and toasted them in the heat of the molten river of lava!
Lake vs Litter
Finally our time in Xela came to an end and we decide we had better see a bit more of Guatemala on the way out to Belize, so having given our sleepingbags to homeless guys we set off for Lake Atitlan. This is also a bit of a tourist Mecca because it is so beautiful. There are lush green hills all around the lake and a huge volcano at one end. We went kayaking and swimming at one of the little beaches around the shores. Unfortunately, among all the beauty was a lot of litter.
Anybody Order A View?
Breakfast time at beautiful Lake Atitlan
The shores of the lake were actually surprisingly clean, but as we crossed the waters we came across great expanses of rubbish floating on the surface. Here, as with so many places in South and Central America we just couldn’t understand why the people who depend on this water for their survival could have such a cavalier approach to disposing of their rubbish. We didn’t stay long. Once we had enjoyed the view and been in the water the ‘try-hard-hippies’ who hang around on the streets and the bars with their special tourist ‘pizza and burger’ menus got a bit boring, so we moved on.
When Is A Bridge Not A Bridge? When It's A Damn Great Tunnel!
Semuc Champey was our destination, though it turned out to be slightly harder to reach than we had anticipated. This was largely due to Tracey deciding we should take the scenic route, rather than heading back to Guatemala City. Several hours into the journey we discovered that a key road on the scenic route had been closed for a long time due to a huge landslide. This had resulted in the direct buses we were hoping to catch being
The day spent here was one of our best in Guatemala
cancelled. Instead we eventually ascertained that we would have to go in smaller mini-bus style transport. This invariably meant a concertinaed David wedged next to a squished Tracey, no fresh air and a deep envy for the little Guatemalans who seem to fit into any space and possess the ability to sleep just about anywhere! When we reached the landslide section we realised why the buses had been cancelled. This was not a regular landslide. This was a whole side of the mountain that had simply slipped away, taking a large portion of the road with it. The people living around the area had ingeniously constructed a ‘diversion’ through some of the rubble, but the hairpin turns needed to get to this make-shift road were tricky in a min-van, never mind a bus or truck. We had a stroke of luck too because the following day the pass was going to be closed for a week for some kind of work to begin on building a new road.
Semuc Champey was definitely worth the effort. It is a stunning place of incredible beauty. It is essentially a river that runs between two limestone mountains, but at a certain point
Swimming In Paradise
After a hot walk to the lookout, Tracey cools off in the crisp, clear water
the limestone deposits have built up over hundreds of years to form a platform over the top of the river. It is described as a bridge, but the structure is so wide, or covers so much of the river, that is creates a 300m long tunnel, under which the river runs. Its surface is a series of pools, created by the limestone. The pools are filled with water which runs out of the limestone rocks of the mountains and is, therefore, incredibly clean, blue and pure.
It was so cool and peaceful relaxing in these mini lakes, while underneath us a huge fast river was rushing its way through to the other end of the tunnel. Apparently several tourists fall into the river every year as they peer over the edge at the entrance to the cave/bridge of limestone. We were told that one actually survived the 300m underwater tumble-ride and came out the other end. We wonder whether there may be some kind of extreme scuba-diving event set up there one day! While wandering around barefoot in the woodland around the lakes we had a bit of a lucky escape when 20 minutes after vacating a bench, we
That Sinking Feeling?
As the cave gets deeper Tracey's candle-hand gets higher. The swimming sections were the most challenging
returned to find a highly poisonous, deadly to humans, green pit viper. It was very long but very skinny too, so the way it moved was particularly freaky! The wardens around the area told us a bite from one of these could kill in as little as 40 minutes. The nearest town does stock anti-venom, but that is more than an hour away, if you get lucky with transport.
Due to the aforementioned limestone in the mountains the area around Semuc Champey is also blessed with several caves you can wade through. We visited one of them and the only lights we had were the candles provided at the entrance. At times we had to swim with one hand while holding the candle above the water with the other. The water was bloody freezing, so getting back in after a brief time scrabbling over rocks was not a pleasant experience. Tracey almost killed herself jumping off a rock inside the cave. We had to clamber up a rock wall and launch off into the water below, but she was worried about hitting the wall where it jutted out just below us, so she jumped a long way out, almost
Contemplating The Mystery...
... of why this powerful city collapsed into ruin
crashing into the opposite wall of the chamber. She heard the gasp of the group just in time to put out a hand and stop her face from sliding down the rock!
Having bonded with the girls in our hostel dorm over the perverted tendencies of one of the staff we caught staring under shower doors on two occasions, we headed off for Tikal together, hoping for better staff and amazing views of the famous Maya ruins.
Birthday Treat: Mayan Temples and Tarantulas
We decided to stay in Flores, the nearest big town to Tikal, rather that staying out at the ruins where the hotels charge a fortune. Flores is a tiny island with a causeway linking it to the mainland. It really only exists as anything more than a village because of the people that stop there on their way to Tikal, so there were plenty of hostels and hotels to choose from. We got to the ruins for 6am the next day and ended up going on a guided tour because the guide slashed his price in half just as he was due to set off!
The site at Tikal extends over
Now That Is Just Showing Off
David decides to mainline any venom straight into his brain
30 sq km, through what is now mostly jungle, and at the height of its power about 100,000 people lived there. The Maya started living there around 700BC and stayed right through until the 7th century. If you take a very wide areal view of the Mayan Empire, Tikal sits at the centre, with 2 other huge cities either side of it. This made it the target of a lot of attacks, but it always seems to have won these battles. The huge towers built by the Maya at this site are enormous and have been well restored. You are only allowed to climb up a few of them, but from their tops you can see across the jungle to the tops of other towers in the complex. We had a great morning exploring all the different areas of the site, then had a second look at some bits ourselves, once the guide had finished. The day of our visit coincided with David’s birthday, so he celebrated by having a venomous tarantula placed on his head. It had been found by workers at one of the towers currently being restored. Tracey also plucked-up the courage to hold it, though she
Another Ancient Ruin
Tracey surprises David with a cake and some presents for his 36th birthday in the northern town of Flores
hates spiders more than anything else in the world!
We made sure we celebrated Dave’s birthday with cake and presents, plus several buckets of beer at the local bar. We were gutted to hear that all bars were being forced to close at 9pm due to 'Piggy-itis' scares, however, when the owner locked the door at 9, he didn't actually throw out anyone out who was already inside! We’re not sure exactly what time we did leave in the end, but it certainly wasn’t an early start the next day.
Having just met up with the girls we befriended at Semuc Champey for breakfast we are now about to try and get our sorry, hung-over selves on a bus heading for Belize. Wish us luck!
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