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Democracy or … ?

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A billboard in Accra 

In the countless passionate conversations I’ve had with peers in Ghana, one particular topic has come up quite often: democracy, and Africa’s relationship with it. Because I am an African Studies certificate at Georgetown, my courses had given me a good amount exposure to Ghanian politics before arrival. In African Studies, Ghana is often hailed as a beacon of hope for democracy in Africa and is a favorite for Western scholars, donors, and investors. The country has witnessed peaceful elections and transitions and has experienced a general stability and peace in the midst of other African nations which are still struggling with mutinies and coups. Thus, I came to Ghana with this narrow understanding: Ghana has been successful because it has been implementing democracy and its peer-nations have been struggling with development because they haven’t.

I quickly came to learn from local Ghanians that this view of western democracy as the best political system was not shared by everyone. I have even met Africans from other countries who contrary to common thought in the US and to western scholars, adore Paul Kagame and admire the development he has managed to bring to his country. Then there was one friend who tried to explain to me why he had no problem with Mugabe and his decades of rule. “I would rather have a president for 100 years who is good for my country than a different one every few years with no development and with instability” he explained. Leadership, not democracy, is what’s important he stressed. Another friend, a Ghanian student studying sociology, questioned my rush to commend Ghana’s peaceful elections. “What if both parties were in on some deal to hold peaceful elections and get more money from international organizations and then split the funds? What if that’s why so much of rural Ghana is still poor?” Granted he was playing devil’s advocate, but his questions got me thinking.

Since being in Ghana and speaking with Africans I have become more aware of my biases from growing up and attending university in the West. Democracy is emphasized to the point where you become an ambassador for this system without fully understanding what it means for people around the world. Lesson number three hundred something from Ghana, stop telling Africans what political system is best for them. Listen to what they want and consider the fact that successful political systems existed before colonialism and there are alternatives to democracy. Be willing to hear and understand that for some, democracy has and continues to be an absolute nightmare. This doesn’t mean being completely and utterly against democracy or any and all ideals which come from the West, but it does means thinking critically about them and what they look like in African contexts.

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When French Fails

The other week I had a friend visiting me in Brussels, so we went downtown to find a bar that a housemate had recommended. And because I’m denser than a rock, I didn’t even realize I had lead us into the wrong bar until after we had made ourselves comfortable at a table. That said, we decided that we liked the bar and its atmosphere well enough to just stick around.

I went up to the bar and ordered our drinks in French, and when I fumbled over the word “margarita” (I always struggle with pronouncing words that are the same in French as they are in English), the bartender chuckled and asked if I was Australian. He told me, in English, that it was a good try and “very French.” I was left feeling confused, because wasn’t that the whole point?

As I was waiting for our drinks, an older man came up to me and asked me something in Dutch. I completely fished gaped, because I honestly can’t recall if there’s ever been a time when someone’s approached me with Dutch first in Brussels. He then said “You speak English?” We chatted for a bit in English, and when the bartender interrupted to ask me a question, I responded instinctually with a “oui!”

The man I was talked to frowned a little and waggled his finger at me “You know this is a Flemish bar, don’t you?”

And it was then that I noticed that all the signs on the walls and menus were written in English and not French, and that should have been a dead giveaway.

By political correctness, in a Flemish institution, or in Flanders itself, it’s considered much politer to speak English over French. And I’m not going to lie, when I realized it was a Flemish bar, I felt a little mortified at my mistake.

Although Brussels is by law a bilingual city, in practice, it’s a French speaking city. It’s illegal to run polls asking people what language they speak, but the general consensus is that Brussels has more French-speakers than Dutch speakers, but that the majority of the population lives in Flanders, the Dutch region of Belgium (where, confusingly enough, Brussels is located). So although French is the main language of Brussels, just outside the city is all Dutch-speaking.

French has never let me down in Brussels before this, but I took this experience as a “Hey! Don’t forget we exist too!” from the Dutch side of Brussels to keep me on my toes!

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Bucket Lists

I am terrible at bucket lists. Not at making them though. I can fill up at least 20 spots on any bucket list I make. I’m a dreamer. But when it comes to fulfilling them, I usually forget about taking the time to start the goals or even lose the list sometimes. It has come to the point where my roommate, with whom I make a bucket list every year with, has refused to continue the tradition because we fail to ever do them.

In conclusion, I suck at the follow-through.

But at the beginning of my study abroad, CIEE (the study abroad program I am traveling through) had us create a list of goals we wanted to achieve here. It wasn’t supposed to be bucket list style though, where you could easily check things off after a day. These were goals that you hoped to accomplish over the course of the six months in Rio. I thought it would have been easy but it is actually quite hard to put into words all of your expectations and desires for what is supposed to be some of the best months of your life.

So I made the list. And five months later, I finally remembered it.

I was adding a few new pictures to my bulletin board last week when I noticed one of my first additions to it: my bucket list! I had not stopped to read it since I first put it up way back in January. Looking back on it now, I have to chuckle at a few of my goals since I had some super high expectations of myself (going to a gym). But I was largely surprised by the amount of goals that I feel that I have “accomplished” here. I don’t really like the word accomplish since it makes it seems like I worked for these goals when many of them happened just naturally.

So here they are for the world to see…

  1. Walk around Copacabana (my neighborhood) without a map
  2. Visit at least 7 metro stops (do something at each)
  3. Join an athletic class (on the beach)
  4. Volunteer/Intern in Rio
  5. Speak Portuguese without being afraid of messing up
  6. Join a local church
  7. Make friends with students here
  8. Learn how to samba
  9. Visit 3 other states and/or cities
  10. Learn the bus system
  11. Go surfing
  12. Build relationships in my neighborhood (businesses, neighbors, etc)

Sidenote: I have a separate list of things to see and do in Rio, so don’t be disappointed that the Christ the Redeemer statue wasn’t on my original list.

When coming to Rio, I hoped that I wouldn’t just play tourist in the city. I love exploring Rio and checking out its cool beaches but I could do that at any point in my life. Being a tourist is easy and I didn’t want that for my six months here.

Most of my goals surrounded building a life here, or at least the start. I wanted to be comfortable in my environment (walk around without a map), to be confident in navigating the city (learn the bus system) and to feel at home where I live (build relationships in my neighborhood). Volunteering and find a church were goals of mine for personal growth as well as building relationships outside of my exchange program. I am very grateful to have found both of those here. I currently attend a church only a few blocks away from my homestay where I have met many of my closest friends here. My volunteering takes me to two different parts of the city where I have the opportunity to teach English at one and translate Portuguese at the other.

All of these goals help me out with my big goal of speaking Portuguese without being afraid of messing up. After meeting so many new people, finding my way around new parts of the city and asking for help way too much, I can proudly say that I no longer am afraid of messing up. I may have some terrible Portuguese but I am overall confident that I can get by here with what I have.

So I am only missing three goals on my list. I am ashamed that they are probably supposed to be the “easy” ones. Numbers 3, 8 and 11. But, since looking at this list, I have decided that I really want to finish it so I’m already looking into ways to cross those ones off. I have my first surfing lesson in a couple days! You have to start somewhere.  

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Part of the Family

Before arriving in Brazil, I had some anxiety about living with a host family, which is pretty understandable. You just arrive at someone’s house whom you have never met and move into not only a room but their life. It is worse than the first day of college because you are the ONLY new person in the house. I also had not lived in a family setting in three years, used to the student lifestyle that consists of odd hours, unhealthy food choices and disorganized desks. My fear was that I wouldn’t be able to adjust back to living with people who weren’t my age. Overall, I was super nervous about the host family thing.

The program here in Rio must have known that we would be nervous when we arrived back in January, or so I thought. We were picked up from the airport and then left at the doorsteps of our new families. No introduction, no background information, no chance to freak out. I both hated and appreciated this tactic.

Riding up the elevator with my two suitcases, tired and disheveled from 12 hours of traveling, I tried to sum up all my energy and Portuguese for this first meeting with my new family. First impressions are everything, you know?


Flash forward to Mother’s Day just this past weekend. After giving my host mom a Mother’s Day card, her and her one year old grandson and I headed out to the metro to meet the extended family for a Sunday lunch. We ate a mix of delicious Brazilian and Indian food (long story). We chatted and watched some sports. We stayed until the sun went down and I decided that it was probably best for me to get home. It was simple. It was chill. It was family time.

Four months after I first walked into my fifth floor Copacabana apartment, I could not imagine living anywhere else or with anyone else. When traveling sometimes on the weekends, I miss being at my house in Rio because it has become a home for me. I feel so loved and relaxed in my building, in my room and with my host mom.

By no means do we have a mother-daughter relationship but more like a cool aunt-niece relationship. I get to play with her grandson when I am feeling homesick for my own little nephew. Sometimes, we even go out in the city to do a hike or hit up some yummy pastry shops. We chat about our days when we are both home but also respect the alone time that each of us needs. She allows me to be independent in my time here, whether it be in the house or exploring the city.

However, I know that I can always count on her to help me out when I am lost or confused. One time, I came home in near tears after searching almost every grocery store for dehydrated mushrooms (again long story). After explaining the situation to her, she stopped what she was working on and started calling family to try to get the intel on where they would sell these dehydrated mushrooms. It was times like those where I felt lucky to have someone here to rely on.

I know that I am one of the lucky ones though. There are of course the host family horror stories that the other exchange students will share. I am very grateful for my host family situation and know that I will always have a home to return to in Rio.

Até Próxima!

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(part of my little home)

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Four Days in Lomé

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Last weekend, five friends and I took a road trip to neighboring Togo. Navigating any transportation system in a foreign country can be confusing but with the working french two of us knew, and the help of some good samaritans, we managed to get in, around, and out of Togo with little trouble. First, we took a tro-tro (min-vans which are the popular mode of transportation in Accra) to Toudou station in downtown Accra at 6am on a Sunday morning. At Toudou station, we were swarmed by several tro-tro mates each hustling to quickly fill up their tro-tro with passengers. The three hour ride to Aflao, the town at the Ghana-Togo border, was smoother than we expected and when it began raining hard about halfway through the trip we were thankful for a sane driver who knew to slow down during a storm.

We spent three nights at a hotel in Lomé that had been highly recommended to us by friends who had visited Togo the week before us. It was owned by a French family and ended up being in a touristy neighborhood with very expensive food. During the four days we spent there, we were the only people of color at the hotel (besides the Togolese waiters and housekeepers of course) and for a second I almost forgot that I was still in West Africa. I was disturbed by how even on the continent, I could be made to feel hyper-aware of my skin color in certain spaces. It was a feeling that I had not experienced since I left the U.S. for Guinea in December. What a wake-up call.

On a lighter note, everything else in Lomé felt homey and reminded me so much of Conakry. The beaches, the palm trees, the motorbikes, the food and the music—it was all familiar. On our first full day in Lomé we soaked up some sun on the 20-minute walk to the Independence Circle and then visited La Grande Marché, the biggest market in Togo. West African markets can already be a bit overwhelming but imagine asking for directions and bargaining in French. “Anyone know how to say Shea butter in French?!” Thankfully, we met a vendor who spoke a bit of English and kindly offered to help us get around.

After a late lunch, we spent the evening on Lomé Beach, conveniently situated across the street from our hotel. We sat on the beach and watched the sunset with two of the Togolese friends we made at the market. They played the drums as we sang and talked until dark.

“Anywhere you go,
New York, Chicago,
Nowhere be like Africa,
Nowhere be like home.”

We spent the rest of our time in Lomé discovering other landmarks and historic streets. One of the main takeaways from this trip and just from living in West Africa for the past semester, is that people truly are resources. If you are lost, confused, or have a question, you need to be comfortable asking and relying on people for help. Not everything can be planned or Googled but things still end up working themselves out. One just has to put faith in strangers and trust that people don’t always need something in return for their help. By the end of our journey, we were grateful for the kind strangers we met along the way and knew we couldn’t have done it alone despite all the planning and googling we had done.

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Brussels or Paris?

This is now the third time that I’ve had a family member call to tell me that they’re “coming to visit me.” And by “coming to visit me,” I really mean “going to Paris and want me to meet them there.” To be fair, my mom did ever so kindly stop by Brussels for about a 24 hour period before we hauled out to Paris, so this is really directed towards my brother and my aunt/cousin (no shade. I still love you guys). Let’s get one thing clear – it’s not me you’re coming to visit, it’s Paris.

But, when I really think about it, it goes a lot like this:

Like I’ve already said, Brussels is tiny. You could clear the most interesting points of Brussels (the Mannekin Pis, Grand Place, The Magritte Museum – if you’re the artsy type) in less than a day. On the other hand, Paris is enormous. By the end of my stay in Europe, I’ll have visited Paris at least four times (once before studying abroad), and I don’t think I could ever run out of things to do in Paris. And maybe it’s because I’m living in Brussels and that I’ve already habituated myself to life here, but I want it to be very clear, that even though I’m complaining about having to spend all my weekends in Paris, I’m really not complaining at all. If someone told me they had three days to spend in Brussels, I’d honestly tell them to maybe look into visiting some of the surrounding towns, like Antwerp, Bruges, or Liège. If someone told me they had three days in Paris, I’d probably wonder how they’re narrowing down their list of things to do.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being here in Brussels, and I don’t for a second regret choosing Belgium over France. However, I do think that the friends I’ve made here both within my program and my housemates play a large role in that. And if I’m being completely honest, if I were able to visit only one French speaking city in Europe, I’m pretty sure I’d pick Paris too.

Conclusion: I don’t really blame my family for picking Paris over Brussels, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to complain.

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“Pardon, monsieur”

Yesterday, I ran into one of the French presidential candidates on the sidewalk. I mean this literally: I was leaving my apartment, looking at my phone as I tried to get Spotify to load, when I accidentally bumped into someone and looked up to see Francois Fillon.

A bit of context: French presidential elections, held every five years, consist of two rounds, one to narrow down a wide field of candidates to two finalists and a second to choose between them. The first round, called the “premier tour,” of the 2017 election was two days ago on Sunday, where the pool of eleven candidates became a race between two, centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right nationalist Marine le Pen. The two will face off for the presidency in early May. This election has been one of the most contentious and probably the most historic in all of French history, and it is the first time that France has sent through to the second round two candidates outside of the traditional two-party system. A massive shock to the country’s political system, this election has shown the French people’s desire to overturn the existing structure and reform their parties drastically. The first round also demonstrates a huge divide in political ideology: while Macron is staunchly pro-European Union and favorable towards immigration, le Pen is an islamophobic anti-immigrant populist candidate. The two present two very different visions of the future of France and of the EU.

Before the “premier tour,” results came in, however, the election appeared incredibly close, a four-way race between Macron, le Pen, Melanchon, a far-left anti-globalization candidate, and Fillon, the candidate for the traditional, conservative Republican party (the same party as former president Sarkozy). As the results came in on Friday night, it was unclear who would be passing through to the next round, and once the two winners were confirmed, it was reported that Melanchon and Fillon had been within a percentage of the victory.

All of this background brings me to yesterday afternoon, when casually bumped into one of the most important political figures in France on my way to class. I knew it was Fillon immediately – all of the campaign posters of the candidates had been posted ubiquitously around the city for weeks leading up to the election, so I knew his face well – and froze for a moment, unsure what to say. I quickly apologized, and he just smiled and kept walking. I’ll admit that I turned around several times to look back, still not believing it.

I love politics. They’re the reason why I’m at Georgetown, and one of the main reasons I decided to study abroad at Sciences Po – it’s basically the place to be if you want to become involved in politics in France. And I love being in Paris this semester of all times, because this election will have huge ramifications on the future of Europe and the global community and will be remembered for decades to come. Most of my classes here are political science classes, and I’ve learned so much, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing political change in real time, in the capital city of one of the most important countries in Europe. I’ll be able to say for the rest of my life that I was in Paris for this election, that I saw it all happen, and that I – quite literally – bumped into French politics on every corner.

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Um Dia na Vida (A Day in the Life)

I am just half way through with my time abroad and most Hoyas are already wrapping up the semester. Sad to miss the beloved Georgetown Day but forever grateful to skip out on finals.

To be honest, I was having a bit of a hard time of choosing something to write about for this month’s blog (it seems to be a theme for me). I started thinking about what I would have wanted to know when I decided to study abroad. My main concerns about going abroad weren’t anything big. I pretty much wanted to know what I would be doing everyday, would I be “Georgetown busy” or would I be bored. So I decided to jot an entire day’s activities here at PUC-Rio. “A day in the life” for those future study abroad students who, like me, have no idea what to expect.


7:00 AM – This is always the point of my day where I am the most Georgetown-sick. For the past three years, I have been able to get up 10 minutes before class, get ready and walk over to class on time. Here in Rio, I have to be on public transportation at least an hour before my class. So, I am up two hours before my class eating breakfast that my host mom leaves me, usually bread and fruit like watermelon or caqui.

8:00 AM- I was super lucky in my host family placement. My apartment is right across from the metro station and the bus pickup. It is a pretty happening area, with the motorcycle-taxi stop outside my door, a handful of food stands of cookies, fruits and tapioca and an antiques galeria nearby. For just a two minute walk to the metro, I see a ton of action for 8 o’clock in the morning.img_0112

9:00 AM- My first class of the day is History of the Church 2, which is a lot more lively than it sounds. I am the youngest student in the class by probably twenty years. There is a sweet 80-year old woman with big round glasses who sits next to me in class and another woman doesn’t mind when I whisper questions about words I didn’t understand (a lot!). Definitely something I have not experienced at Georgetown yet. Another first (ashamedly) is that it is my first class with a Jesuit professor!

11:00 AM- Portuguese is the class where I speak the most English in surprisingly. Half the class is from the United States and England while the other half is from a mix of European countries. When the professor isn’t talking, there is a mix of English, French, German and Italian in the room. It is a good class to rest my brain because the focus is on learning Portuguese only, not learning another subject IN Portuguese.

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1:00 PM- Lunch time! There are plenty of options around PUC for lunch, a snack or just a cafezinho. The Bandejão (the cafeteria) isn’t at all like Leo’s. There are a couple line options that change everyday and the ever-present rice and beans. If you are feeling a bit tired of rice and beans, you can head out to these little barracas that sell cheese bread, coxinhas or açai ( featured below ). Many days I opt for the 400ml cup of açai because you only study abroad once!

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3:00 PM- By this point in the day, I’m honestly a little beat and I have two more classes, Publicity and Propaganda and Development of Favela Communities. There are both great classes, that involve a lot of group projects so I’m constantly using my Portuguese and not just listening to it. I really like the variety of classes that I am taking because I get to meet different people from the adult students in Theology to the freshmen in Communications. In Brazil, you take all the same classes with your major so exchange students are lucky to take different classes with a variety of majors.

7:00 PM- I head out of PUC around this time on the Metro Bus. On Thursdays, I get to go home and pass out after the long day but on Tuesdays, I head off to volunteer with a children’s theater group through my local church. It may seem that I am constantly busy but it is only twice a week! The other days you can find me taking full advantage of the beach life in Copacabana.

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If you are interested in learning more about the day in the life of other study abroad students, check OGE’s Snapchat or Youtube account for #TakeoverTuesdays!

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Let’s Talk Politics

Possibly my favorite class I’m taking this semester in Bath is UK Politics and Government. It’s one of the most exciting times to take a course on UK politics, to say the least. For anyone unaware of the current state of affairs in Britain, last summer there was a referendum held to decide whether the UK should leave the European Union. The result of the referendum was in favor of leaving, and since then Britain has gone through a tumultuous political period. David Cameron stepped down as Prime Minster, Scotland is considering independence once more, and now Theresa May has just called for a snap election (which basically means that every Member of Parliament is up for election in June). Most importantly, perhaps, is that Britain is largely in a state of uncertainty about its future. No one is entirely sure what Brexit means for the country, its economy, or its place in the world. Further, there are questions about what this means for other Europeans countries like France, and what this means for the EU as a whole. The future is quite seriously unknown.

With all of these developments, it is quite interesting living in the UK. As an American, I have been asked more than once about our new administration, but these conversations just as often get turned around as Brexit inevitably comes up. I’ve talked to many people who strongly disagree with the result, but I’ve also heard people explain why they voted to leave. In my UK Politics class, every week we realize just how much this decision complicates what we know about British politics and just how many areas of policy and government it already has, and will continue to influence. As an outsider, it’s fascinating to have these conversations. I don’t doubt that I’d enjoy this class pre-Brexit, but there is something about being in this country as it works through the consequences of the decision that makes the issue feel much less foreign. I feel like I am witnessing firsthand what I would never exactly get from a BBC article. Before coming to Britain, I had people ask why I’d come after the Brexit result. However, I believe that I’m learning about the issue in a much more personal way, even in an academic setting. It will be interesting to see how the rest of Brexit unfolds over the months and years to come, and I hope that students don’t see the decision as a deterrent*, but as an opportunity to see the politics of Brexit in action and hear from British residents about their experiences during this time.

 

*note: As a person of color, I was a bit anxious coming because anti-immigrant sentiment is part of the discussions about Brexit, but in my personal experience I have not felt unwelcome in the country, nor in any danger (especially because I am from America, which is a privilege on its own). I do understand that this is a serious source of anxiety for others, however, and would be willing to share my experiences.

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Life in “ISH”

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Before arriving in Ghana, I was given the two options of doing a homestay or living on campus in the International Students’ Hostel, better known as ISH. I spent a lot of time going back and forth between two and understood that each had its pros and cons. I was hesitant about living in ISH because I was afraid that it wouldn’t push me outside of my comfort zone as much as a homestay would. I assumed that most of the other residents would be Americans and thought it counter-productive to travel all the way to Ghana and live with a bunch of Americans. Despite this, I ended up choosing ISH because homestays have their own limitations and I felt that living on campus would be the best way to get involved in campus life and get to know other students.

It would be an understatement to say that living in ISH has informed a significant portion of my experience in Ghana so far, as most of the friends I have made outside of class are ISH residents. I was pleasantly surprised that about half of the residents are not American but are students from other African countries. I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet and have discussions with people from neighboring Togo and Burkina Faso, from Nigeria and Cameroon, and from even as far east as Kenya and South Sudan. I didn’t realize it when I was choosing this housing option, but the diversity here is pretty incredible—-it’s the University’s own little melting pot of cultures and ideas.

That being said, I have also learned more from my American friends who live in ISH than I had expected to. Even though we come from the same country, and sometimes even the same city (there are at least ten other New Yorkers living in ISH!), we all come here with different expectations that have been informing our experiences. For example, some of the most meaningful conversations I have had during my time in Ghana have been with my African-American friends about Pan-Africanism, identity and what coming “back to Africa” means to different people.

From the countless movie nights and sleepovers on stormy nights, to the yelling and shouting that comes from the fourth floor TV room during football matches, to the life that overtakes the hostel during “dumsor” (a popular Ghanian term literally meaning “off and on” that is used to describe power outages) as everyone steps out of their rooms and onto the ISH balconies and stairways to enjoy each other’s company but to also avoid the sudden heat that comes with the ceiling fan being off, ISH has been quite an experience. It has been a wonderful way to experience Ghanian culture all-the-while getting a taste of a host of others and I’m grateful for the conversations and friendships that have come out of living in ISH.

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