14 September 2014
I was saving this story for my final blog on this trip because it’s an absolute travel gem. There are few days in my life that were more frightening, bizarre and hilarious all at the same time. It of course involves a car, as all great stories on this trip do. We’ve had difficulty getting the right car, difficulty finding gas for the car, difficulty parking the car, difficulty navigating the car around other drivers (I’m looking at you Turkey) and even difficulty backing the car up down a lane that got more and more narrow like the entrance to the factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That last one was the ultimate Austin Powers moment as the car was wedged between a wall and another car (see below). Still, nothing compares to this doozie of a day so buckle up and get ready for a rip roaring good time.
It all started in the hills of Montenegro just north of Niksic. We had been driving for about an hour since lunch and came upon some gasoline spilled in the road which caused us to slide a little bit and resulted in a minor fender bender. Because of our insurance, we had to call the police and obtain a report to ensure we didn’t get charged by the rental car company. Seems easy enough. Wrong.
A local guy offered to call the cops for us and while we were waiting it started to rain like it had never rained before. I mean, we’re talking biblical rains and here we are stranded on the side of the road. This is when we learned that the left two doors were now leaking, which meant said biblical rain was falling on Sarah and my head. Awesome. This is what also made us realize we’d need to have the car replaced. You can’t carry on in a car that’s taking on water. So the cop finally arrives and just immediately has that “You’re an idiot” air about him, shaking his head and surveying the scene as if to say “stupid foreign kids.” Now, while we are indeed younger than this officer we are by know means kids. I’m 30 for gods sake and we’re all either working professionals or obtaining higher higher degrees and yet his walk, his eye rolls and his general “you listen here sonny boy” demeanor is somehow wildly offensive.
Pasha spends a solid hour in the police car with him playing charades about what happens before he takes Pasha’s passport and drives away with no indication of what will happen next. Our hopes of quickly picking up a new car and continuing on our trip are fading very very fast. So now we’re once again stranded on the side of the road taking cover in an abandoned building. As we’re standing there, another car swerves and slides and crashes IN THE EXACT SAME SPOT AS US. We run to help and make sure everyone is okay, which they are, thank goodness. His car is completely undrivable and a small contingent of burly southern European men push and cajole it to the side of the road.
A few more minutes pass and a tow truck arrives. No doubt this is for our car but because there are two accidents the driver looks thoroughly confused. Sarah and Aditi are pointing at our car like “hey man, take ours. We were here first. Lets get this show on the road.” Fortunately, the police officer rolls up again before any decisions are made. Seeing the second accident (and noting that it was caused by an upstanding father and husband), he bangs his head on his steering wheel and the air of superiority, though not completely gone, definitely begins to fade.
He assures the two truck driver that our car is in fact first up and we frantically remove all the bags from the boot as he hoists the little Skoda onto the flat bed, demands 50 euros in cash, then drives away with our rental car to god knows where. So now we’re on the side of the road. In the middle of Montenegro. With no car. And all of our bags. And a Russian family. And an irritable cop. What. To. Do.
Fortunately, one of the local guys offers to act as our translator and coerces from the cop that I will need to go with him to the police station to make a report. At the same time our car rental company has indicated that a replacement car won’t be with us until the following afternoon, which means we’ll be staying in wonderful Niksic for the night! Aditi - a newly minted lawyer - suggests she come along to the police station. Meanwhile, the rest of the team orders a taxi with plans to check us into Niksic’s only hotel. “Meet you there in an hour,” Aditi offers up as we pull away with the policeman. No such luck.
We arrive to what appears to be a police force in chaos. There are officers everywhere looking incredibly busy but actually doing very little. Cell phones are ringing constantly, people are walking with intent in every direction but as soon as you dig just slightly under the surface it’s all too easy to see that there is no substance to the activity. An office opens a filing cabinet to reveal piles of papers strewn in every possible direction. Bent, torn, upside down, you name it. Meanwhile, we notice another officer in the corner typing away on his computer using only ONE finger. Not one finger of each hand, just ONE FINGER. It’s utterly bizarre.
Aditi and I are shuttled from room to room, no clear sense of what is happening. The poor Russian man - who doesn’t speak a work of Montenegran - is being shouted at by a team of officers who clearly don’t speak a word of Russian. They’re using the “if I speak louder then he will understand” approach to no avail. Fortunately, we meet a man who speaks English and is in our same situation. He offers to help us along and genuinely saves the day. A solid hour later we’re brought into an interview room where I am asked to write down - in English - what happened. This takes no more than five minutes, during which the officer receives and answers no fewer than seven phone calls on his cell phone, his ringtone blasting “I’m Sexy And I Know It” every time. I hand it back to him and ask our new translator if he is able to find out how quickly I can get a copy of the report. He and the officer have a short conversation before he tells me “you have to come back in an hour to see the judge who will rule on your trial.” What the what?!
Offered no further explanation, Aditi and I beeline it to the hotel to catch up with the rest of the team, where we regale them with our absurd experiences so far before heading back to the station for our trial, which ends up not being at the station at all. It is now after 10pm. This debacle started at 5:20pm. An officer shows us to his car where we hop in to be driven who knows where. Five minutes later we arrive to what looks like an abandoned strip mall. Our car is parked outside, still on the tow truck. The office leads us into a lobby where we sit and wait for another hour before a woman walks out and says in English, “the judge will see you now.” We hop up, I pass her, walk in, her the door close, turn around and see that Aditi has been left outside. Oh no.
The room looks like the office of an insurance salesman in Glendale. Sparse walls decorated with inspiration posters, a few desks, the oldest Dell computers on earth and some very random characters. The judge is wearing shorts, flip flops, and a polo shirt. His clerk is sitting to his left and on “the bench” is my translator and myself. The cop is also sitting opposite us. There is also a random young woman sitting in the corner playing candy crush WITH THE SOUND ON who I learn later is the “official witness” to I have no idea what. The proceedings, I gather.
We start by my translator reading my supposed account of the accident which sounds like a East German style rewrite where I’m claiming responsibility for not only this car accident (that affected no other vehicles) but also everything else bad that has happened in the world from the dawn of time until now. “You accept you are a bad and dangerous driver and subjected society to danger by your terrible actions,” the translator read. “No, I didn’t write any of those things,” I respond, as we work together to rewrite the statement though I can’t read it so I have no idea what’s actually being put down. We then confirm my name as Kyle Tyler (wrong), my address as East Vagina Ave (also wrong, and “corrected” to East Viagra Ave, no joke) and my ethnicity as - wait for it - American Samoa. Despite correcting this the final documents of the court end up saying all of the above, which means if I am ever in trouble again in Montenegro they’ll be looking for a stalky islander who lives on Viagra Avenue.
Next the policeman goes and says their investigations have shown there was gasoline spilled on the road. I’m thinking, “great. The cop acknowledges there were unforeseeable obstacles. That should wrap this up and I should be out of here in no time.” Wrong. Even with this admission, according to Montenegran law I can still be charged with “public endangerment” regardless of the fact that it was an accident for which I was not at fault. I know this because my translator read directly from the 400-page book of statues that cover traffic violations ONLY. At one point I asked her if I might go to jail. Her response? “Let me ask the judge.” After a lengthy exchange she turned to me and said “no, but the judge says you will have to pay a fine. I know it’s crazy but this is Montenegro. It’s corruption!” At least she was honest.
With no further additions from me the judge rendered his verdict: A fine of 130 euros payable in cash only. As I had none on me (we had only just arrived in Montengro) the cop proceeded to drive me to an ATM where I pulled out money and was returned to the court. When I got back the translator said to me, “good news Kyle! While you were away I bargained down your fine to 100 euros!” Okay, let me start by saying this is excellent news but seriously, why on earth can you BARGAIN DOWN A GOVERNMENT FINE? This country is trying to accede to the European Union. This type of corruption just won’t cut it. Anyway, I paid the fine in cash, got a receipt with ten different “official” stamps on it, and was then returned with Aditi to the police station to pick up the police report. By this time it was after midnight - a seven-hour saga that ended with a criminal record for me, a fine, and a delay in our trip.
Now all we needed was a copy of the police report, which was of course the only thing we needed to begin with and it wasn’t even for us - it was for the rental car company! The officers told us it wouldn’t be ready until the morning (naturally) so we headed back to the hotel, drank lots of local brandy and regailed the group with our absurd happenings. As you might expect, the next day was equally absurd. More cops buzzing around like they had no idea why we were there, further delays, a fee that had to be paid at the post office to obtain an official receipt that had to then be brought back to the police station, several phone calls to who knows who and lots of single finger typing in the corner. It took nearly two hours in the end just to get a copy of the report. Our replacement car (a microscopic Chevy Aveo) arrived just after 5pm, concluding what was possibly the most absurd 24 hours of my life. But man, does it make for a great story!
12 September 2014
I first had the good fortune of coming to Sarajevo in 2004 when I was studying abroad in Europe. My program was based in Brussels and focused on the European Union. The EU has just taken over administration for the transitional faze of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s government. It was less than ten years since the siege on the city and less than five years since the regional conflict ended entirely. Blown up buildings were still commonplace. Those that were still standing were riddled with bullet holes. Even our hotel - The Holiday Inn and only major hotel at the time - still showed signs of having been mortared when the Serbian separatists and Yugoslav Army parked themselves in the surrounding hills and spent years shooting rockets, bombs and bullets at its residents. They were literally trying to bomb them into submission.
The citizens of Sarajevo didn’t waiver, however. Faced with almost certain death and no arms to fight back they built a secret underground tunnel (pictured above) beneath the airport that led from the city to “Free Bosnia” through which they funneled telecommunications, electricity, food, and armaments. The Serbs had also cut off all water supplies into the city. Thankfully, they were unaware that the Austral-Hungarian built beer brewery had tapped into a separate natural spring 100 years before. This became the lifeline of the city and people smuggled in large canisters to fill up and take home on an almost daily basis. The Serbs couldn’t figure out how the residents were staying alive and in the end, they won out though there was still a horrific loss of life and property. Just for some perspective, this was taking place while the US was entwined with the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and the UK were ushering in a new era of politics with New Labour’s dramatic landslide victory. The internet bubble was still expanding and meanwhile there was a full-out ethnic conflict (and genocide) in Europe. Amazing stuff.
The lat ten years have seen monumental change in the city and it took no more than an hour for all of us to be completely endeared by its charm, character, and all-around perfection. From fascinating history museums (this was also the place where World War I started) to beautiful architecture, adorable pedestrian lanes to bustling market squares Sarajevo has everything a city needs to charm you. And lets not forget the food and drinks. Our “food highlight” was definitely a recently moved (thanks for nothing Lonely Planet) restaurant where there are no menus. You simply tell the waiters what you like and don’t like and the chefs whip up a culinary masterpiece accompanied by soup, dessert, and bottles of champagne all for the price of a meal at McDonald’s. The local brewery also housed a spectacular beer hall serving up pints for under a dollar. The sites, sounds and tastes were further magnified by the people. Lovely, kind, warm, generous, smiling people. Our first apartment even came with its own grandma, who nattered on in Bosnian while wearing a massive smile as she cooked us local specialties in her oven.
Four days simply wasn’t enough and Sarajevo is on the top of my “return as soon as possible” list.
11 September 2014
I had seen the pictures. Endless coastlines dotted with beautiful coved beaches. Picturesque jagged cliffs plunging into the sea. Otherworldy lakes. Charming old walled cities buzzing with an air of rediscovered glory. Last and certainly not least, uncrowded and affordable. The Balkan coastline absolutely delivered.
After a harrowing descent down the side of a cliff face in pitch black (the most frightening drive I have undertaken, enhanced by the fact that I was behind the wheel of a Chevy Aveo stuffed to the brim with people and bags), we rolled into the seaside town of Budva, Montenegro to find we were perhaps the only non-Russians and non-Serbs in the entire city. It was freeing to feel like the only language-incapable guests. Like we were totally incognito in a very backwards way.
We had dinner in the shadows of the old city walls listening to fantastic local singer belt out western diva classics that culminated in a sultry slow rendition of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind. It was totally surreal.
The next few days were spent lake and beach hopping, interlinked by gorgeous country drives and - despite it being the business month - fairly few crowds save for on the sand itself (which looked like a patchwork of leathery sunburned human flesh). The lakes! The beaches! The vistas! And of course, Sveti Bar - a little island connected to the mainland via a thin spit of sand that forms one of the most stunning coastline views I have ever seen.
From Budva it was northward to Dubrovnik via The Bay of Kotor, which felt like stumbling upon one of Europe’s best kept secrets. It left me torn as to whether I should tell people about it so they can visit or keep it all to myself. It was just stunning!
We completed our coastal adventure in Dubrovnik which is without question the most beautiful town in Europe. The external walls are perfect. The uniform red roofs are perfect. The tiny lanes, draped in people’s washing lines and dotted with cute street lights and al fresco dining were too adorable to feel real. In fact, that was the general feeling about the entire town - like we were enveloped in our own little fairy tale of perfection.
On our last day we rented a boat piloted by Captain Sarah French Brennan and spent from dawn to dusk island hopping along the Dalmation Coast. It was, at times, all a bit too incredible and borderline overwhelming. There were endless “pinch me” moments and I just can’t wait to get back.
Did I mention it’s wonderful?
A few gorgeous pics:
Lake Skadar, Montenegro
Lanes in Dubrovnik
Swimming Outside Dubrovnik's City Walls
03 September 2014
Imagine the scene. It’s 7:30pm. We’ve just driven 30% of the way across Turkey and arrive at the airport in Kayseri to fly back to Istanbul. We’re driving the Fluence and we’re just about to give it back. There is unadulterated joy in our hearts as we pull into the airport parking lot. I can see the manager - the one who “cancelled” our reservation in a rest stop off the side of the highway ten days before after having failed in any way to provide the car that we booked. We debate amongst ourselves whether or not to drive the car into a post before their very eyes. After all, “Steve’s car,” as we learned we were driving, comes with full insurance. We decide to be good ambassadors for our nation instead and return it without incident, quickly check in for our late-night flight, and spend some time in the airport cafe drinking tea and writing emails.
Our flight was planned to arrive incredibly late into Istanbul and we had told our AirBnB host literally MONTHS before of this detail. The host, Ipek, sent us numerous messages saying that would be no problem and I had spoken to her on the phone in Kayseri around 9pm where she had said “call me when you land and I will meet you there.” While everything was, on paper, totally fine, in practice we all felt a looming sense of doom.
We landed at midnight, bags took an hour and the bus into the city took another 30 minutes to sort out, meaning we didn’t arrive to central Istanbul until about 2:30am. The entire bus journey we were calling the host non-stop. I probably rang her no fewer than 35 times, all with no answer. We simultaneously emailed her, sent her AirBnB messages, and everything else in-between. Now, Istanbul is a lovely place but it doesn’t where I am - I don’t want to be without a bed at 2:30am.
Our plan was to hop in a taxi and go to the lodging, hoping she had perhaps fallen asleep or something. A seemingly lovely older gentleman cab driver offered to take all five of us with all of our bags. We loaded up (clown car style) and zoomed towards what was meant to be our apartment for three nights that we had booked and paid for two months prior.
First problem: there is no street number listed. This left me using photos on AirBnB of the front door to determine that it had rainbow-coloured stained glass which was naturally SO EASY to see in pitch black at 3am. Our taxi - a teeny tiny Chevy Aveo (smallest sedan on the market) was screeching up and down this MASSIVE hill, 6 grown adults, 5 grown suitcases and 5 big backpacks inside. We were burning rubber and spinning out. It was ridiculous.
Finally, we decided to continue on foot and asked the cab driver to pull off and wait. We found the apartment and assumed there would be a key or something but alas, none. We carried on banging on doors and shouting her name, only to wake up another guest who had been shunned by Ipek, the Terror of Istanbul, as she would now be known. She told us Ipek lived around the corner and that she was “impossible to get a hold of.” Super. Still, she was more than willing to show us the way. We found her apartment and started banging on the doors and windows (the lights were on inside) to no avail. Things were getting desperate.
Everyone swung into action, eager for a shower and some sleep. Pasha was doing recon of the whole building while contemplating throwing a rock through Ipek’s window. Aditi went back to the other building and started banging on doors and shouting. Sarah was standing outside Ipek’s window yelling “Ipek, come on! IPEK, let us in” (she was also using several expletives that shall remain anonymous). Shelley took the job of watching our bags and ensuring the taxi driver, who was still standing outside waiting, didn’t drive away with all of our wordily possessions. Meanwhile, I just continued to hit dial on the phone, hoping Ipek had just fallen asleep or something. And then….she answered:
“Hello, this is Ipek” she said.
“Ipek, it’s your guests. We are here. Please let us in. We’re right outside,” I said cooly but directly.
“What are you talking about? It’s late. I’m tired. Call me in the morning.”
“Um, no, we paid for lodging and you confirmed it. I spoke to you at 9pm and you said once again that you would let us in late. We’re standing in the street and it’s cold and we’re tired and we have PAID YOU so let us in.”
“It’s late. This is crazy. Call me tomorrow. We can talk about it.”
“Where do you want us to sleep? We have a confirmed reservation. We have PAID YOU IN FULL. Come here and let us in RIGHT NOW” (insert expletives).
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. This isn’t Ipek. She’s not here.”
“What are YOU talking about? You told me you were Ipek when you answered. Now come and open the $%*#@*&%@#*%& mother #$#*&$#%^@ door IMMEDIATELY.”
“It’s late. I’m tired. I’m not in Istanbul. I’m away. Call me tomorrow.”
“This is fraud. You took our money and we have a reservation. Now either you or someone better come here immediately to open this door or we will report you for fraud, give you a horrific review, and make sure not only your business is destroyed, but your reputation is destroyed as well.”
“Fine, whatever. I don’t care. Cancel. I’ll keep your money. I’m hanging up now. I’m tired and it’s late. Call me tomorrow.”
AND THEN SHE HUNG UP! On grounds of fraud and horror this was shocking but add in grounds of basic human decency and you have perhaps the most unprofessional and most inhumane thing that has EVER happened to any of us. This was, without question, the most horrific travel experience of my long, well-traveled life.
Thankfully, Sarah hadn’t been as optimistic as me and wrote down the names and numbers of several hostels. The first one came through and had a room for us (at 3am) so we lugged our bags across town huffing and puffing and plotting our revenge on Ipek, which we took out in the form of hate mail, rude text messages, and a full-on assault on AirBnB. Suffice to say, she may well never come back to Istanbul.
As you can imagine, we’re not laughing about it and I have to say, despite everything that happened in that short period of time in the wee hours of the morning, not one person lost their cool.
- Posted using BlogPress from my KyPhone
23 August 2014
Lets start with what we know. Traveling in Turkey is hard. Next to India, it's the most "difficult" place to sojourn I have perhaps ever been. Istanbul, however, is like a city state - this isolated, quite different place from anywhere else in the country. Think London to England.
The real challenge in Istanbul is the volume of humans, as everyone sea to have also figured out just how awesome the city is. After all, it has been at the center of a major empire for most of the last several thousand years and today straddles the Bosphorus, sitting half in Europe and half in Asia.
From the Hagia Sofia (which was a church then a mosque then a church then a mosque then a museum to the Grand Bizarre, ancient underground Roman cisterns to a near new modern art museum, there are tons of must-sees and must dos, all with hours of lines that aren't really lines and droves of tourists and large tour groups. If not done well, you could spend most of your time standing around. Fortunately, we killed it. No lines, no fuss and massive savings. Hence the name of this blog. You want to WIN in Istanbul be able to say "BLAMMO" at the end of every victory? Follow these top tips:
-On your first day in the city visit Topkopi Palace first thing in the morning and buy a 3-day Muze Kart. With this card you save money and get to cut almost all the lines. When you're buying it also skip past the line. There is a Muze Kart sale window past the fuss of the crowds and there seemed to be nobody who caught on to this save for us. Spend the rest of day 1 at the Grand Bizarre.
-Finish day 1 on the Bosphorus. Save money by riding the local ferry called TurYok. $2 a ride!
-Start day two PROMPTLY at 9am by visiting the underground Roman cistern, which has long lines from 10am and no Muze Kary queue jump.
-Head IMMEDIATELY to the Hagia Sofia next door. Again go right to the front and flash your Muze Kart to save time. You should be inside by 9:45 - just beating the horrifying crush of people that emerges from 10am.
-Next walk directly over to the Blue Mosque and go directly inside. External views come next.
-After running yourself rampant all morning head straight up to a rooftop cafe overlooking the Blue Mosque and take in this view over a leisurely cup of tea.
-Take the afternoon off then get yourself all gussied up and take in cocktails, dinner and dancing in Taksim, Istanbul's heart of "cool."
-If you have more time visit Istanbul Modern, the region's most impressive modern art gallery. A good guidebook can also talk you through the rest of the museums, sites and day trips beyond the absolute "must-dos."
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22 August 2014
So far I've focused perhaps too much on the funny and difficult bits of our time in Turkey without singing its praises. Central Turkey is spectacularly beautiful and it deserves at least one entry dedicated to that.
At the crossroads of the crusades, the Silk Road and the meeting of two continents, this dry desert fuels images of the Mojave in California and the red rock mountain ridges of Utah with dabbles of Arizona and New Mexico.
We spent time in three unique places, all with their own rich history and beauty.
Our first stop was Goreme in Cappadocia. This ancient civilization, while evolving with the modern world, has, in parts, continued to live in caves carved into the sides of its hillscape. This makes sense, considering how incredibly warm it was. We also partook, sleeping in a cave hotel that absolutely lived up to the hype.
Next it was a subterranean adventure in the underground city of Derinkuyu. As early as 3000 BC a community of more than 30,000 people had carved into the earth an underground world five stories tall as much as 210 feet deep to escape the climate and conflict above.
There were rooms for animals and sleeping, numerous churches and even a classroom for the children's schooling. It was fascinating!
Finally, we reached Pamukkale, where the temperatures soared to over 115 degrees Fahrenheit forest of the day. Thankfully, part of the experience was bathing in ancient clay baths filled by natural hot springs that cascade down the mountain in a truly otherworldly way. We definitely enjoyed ourselves.
At the top of the hillside, entirely protected by both vantage point and surrounding natural "walls" stood Heliopolis - Turkeys best preserved Roman ruins. This city was once the third largest in Rome'a empire and a global centre of art, culture and finance. To think that so much had happened in this now remote and isolated place was a reminder of how short our blip of life is in the history and story of both human civilization in particular and the planet in general.
So alas, despite the stresses of traveling here the places and experiences were absolutely worth it. Now back to Istanbul we go!
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Location:5. proleterske brigade,,Montenegro
21 August 2014
It's no secret we've had a few run-ins with our car rental company. We had a contractual agreement. They didn't follow it. That's breaking the rules. That is somehow okay here. This just isn't okay.
Nowhere has this propensity for rule-breaking been more apparent then while driving. For example, their are lane markers to delineate where people should keep their cars - in a lane. Any lane of their choosing (as long as they're going in the right direction, which we will get to later). In Turkey we have witnessed and were later told that driving right down the middle of a two-lane highway is not only allowed bit recommended. This of course makes no sense but the practice is rampant. Blinkerless, aimless roaming from lane to lane appears to be a national pastime.
Despite this and the other driving-related activities outlined below it does have to be said that we did not witness a single car accident or the aftermath of a car accident all of our 1100 miles. I managed to contain my LA road rage until yesterday when we reached Konya and the driving reached a new level of unsafe and I decided the least we could do was honk furiously in an effort to point out that such activities were incredibly dangerous. They included:
-A guy in an eleven-passenger van turning left across three lanes of forward traffic IN THE MIDDLE OF A ROUNDABOUT with his flashers on, inches from driving directly into us.
-A guy driving backwards in the innermost lane of the freeway.
-A guy driving backwards in the outermost lane of the freeway.
-A guy driving down the median of the freeway.
-A guy knowingly turning into a one-way street going the wrong direction. This one involved me honking and directing until he backed himself up down the street from which he turned then continuing down the road in the correct direction.
This was all punctuated not in a car but on a plane. As we landed in Istanbul, five people stood up and walked right down the aisle to the front while we were still taxing at breakneck speed falling a bumpy landing in the middle of a thunderstorm. The flight attendants did nothing but I found this incredibly dangerous for them and for the rest of us. They were opening the overhead bins, moving bags, and shouting that they had a connecting flight so they just had to get off quickly.
Perhaps the lack of rules or lack of enforcement of rules in the cultural norm and that's okay as long as it doesn't involve a motor vehicle or a Boeing 737. Somehow I think that's reasonable.
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