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Ka’a Xi’itech, Yucatán

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Once again, another 91 days have come and gone. This time, we’re saying adiós to the Yucatán Peninsula. Our three months here were amazing; an almost perfect mix of history, culture, sight-seeing and adventure. We’re leaving with tanned bodies, relaxed minds, and memories that we won’t soon forget.

Despite the fact that it borders the USA, we had never bothered to visit Mexico and, worse, we knew next to nothing about it. But overlooking our neighbor to the south is a mistake which Jürgen and I won’t be making again. Our three months in the Yucatán consisted of highlight after highlight, surprise after surprise. From the henequen plantations around Mérida to the walled city of Campeche, to the pristine waters off the coast of Quintana Roo, to the ancient Maya cities, we saw as much of the peninsula as humanly possible.

Yes, we had a hectic schedule, but don’t feel too sorry for us. After all, our itinerary was filled with items like “pearl farm on uninhabited beach” and “lagoon tour to see flamingos” and “excursion to forgotten Maya ruins” and “swimming with sea turtles”. There were times we got tired, of course, but whenever I felt myself about to whine, I remembered that my only complaint was having too much of a good thing.

Tulum. Uxmal. Poc-chuc. Sotuta de Peon. Celestún. Maní. Panuchos. Cenotes. Cozumel. I don’t think we’ve ever had so many experiences that I would immediately like to have again. That I would happily repeat the very next day. But that’s not to say that I was ready to sign up for another 91 days in the Yucatán, right away. After three months, there were aspects of life here that I was eager to escape, chief among them the heat and the mosquitoes. The noise and chaos of Mérida, initially fun and invigorating, wore thin. The unreliability of public transportation was infuriating. The lethargy and grime. The littering and the police stops.

But without a few little gripes, a place wouldn’t feel like home, and we knew that we were seriously going to miss the Yucatán. More so than in other places, I felt as though we really improved upon ourselves during our time here. We learned to scuba dive. We became versed in the history and present-day situation of the Maya, one of the most fascinating cultures we’ve ever encountered. We improved our Spanish, discovered a new cuisine, communed with nature, and met some wonderful people. While in the Yucatán, we grew in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

As always, leaving was hard. If nothing else, our time in the Yucatán opened our minds to the wonders of México, and I know for a fact that we’ll be back soon. We’re already starting to look forward to it.

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February 16, 2014 at 5:55 pm Comments (2)

Hunting for Hammocks in Tixkokob

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On paper, it sounded like a foolproof plan. Pop over to nearby Tixkokob, find someone who makes hammocks, snap a few pictures, head home. In and out, 60 minutes max. But it turns out that despite Tixkokob’s status as Mérida’s “Hammock Central,” it’s not all that easy to find someone making them.

Hammocks are an essential part of life in the Yucatán. The majority of locals sleep in them, and not just for a short afternoon siestas, but every single night. In fact, we met a couple people who claim to have never slept in a bed at all. Yucatecans swear by the health benefits of hammocks, which are supposed to be especially good for the spine.

We had already bought ourselves a nice, cotton hammock and now we wanted to see one being produced, so we went to Tixkokob and found its hammock factory. But after a frustrating discussion with its unaccountably paranoid manager, we were refused entrance. Strike One.

That was alright, a factory might have been fun but it wouldn’t have offered the kind of romantic images we were really looking for. So we went back into town and found a small hammock shop. The guy working there explained that his hammocks are handcrafted by neighborhood women, but he refused to give us one of their addresses. That’s totally legit, but still: Strike Two.

Undaunted, we returned to Tixkokob’s main square with another plan: hire some local kid. Soon enough, we met Fernando and had taken seats in the back of his trico. “My whole family makes hammocks, so you picked the right guy!” And now began a ridiculous tour of Tixkokob. His hammock-making cousin wasn’t home (Strike Three). His hammock-wizard aunt wasn’t home (Strike Four). His friend the hammock-master had just finished one and wasn’t about to start another (Strike Five). Another aunt had a hammock half-done there in her courtyard, but was eating and wouldn’t let us in (Strike Six).

Eventually, we ended up at the house of his great aunt. She was busy grinding corn into pozole and when Fernando explained what we were looking for, she went into her house, dragged out a giant loom with a half-completed hammock, grabbed her shuttle and started weaving. Perfect! I turned to give Fernando a thumbs-up, but he was already snoozing away. In a hammock, of course.

It had been a difficult day, but also a lot of fun. At the very least, we got to know every square inch of Tixkokob. If you want to undertake a similar quest, skip the factory and the stores, and seek out Fernando. He (or another guy with six thousand hammock-making aunts) will probably be hanging out in the main square.

Location of Tixkokob on our Map

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February 16, 2014 at 2:54 pm Comments (3)

Our Favorite Restaurants in Mérida

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During our 91 days in the Yucatán, we spent a lot of time on the road. So whenever we were in Mérida, we tried to cook healthy meals and eat at home. Too many Mexican restaurants turn Mike and Jürgen into pudgy boys. Despite our best efforts, though, we couldn’t resist visiting a good percentage of Mérida’s eating establishments. Here are some of our favorites; not necessarily the city’s “top-rated” restaurants, but for one reason or another, the ones we most enjoyed.

Restaurant Tips Merida
Chaya Maya

If you’re looking for a classy place to try some classic Yucatecan cuisine, look no further than the Chaya Maya. This restaurant is a Mérida institution, with waitresses dressed in huipiles and even a woman at the entrance hand-forming the tortillas that will soon be on your table. The prices are reasonable and the food is fantastic, especially the sopa de lima and poc-chuc. There are two branches of Chaya Maya near each other, but we preferred the one on C/ 55, near the Plaza de Santa Lucia. [Location]

El Tucho

A raucous restaurant found a block away from the Plaza Grande, our initial visit to El Tucho was quite a surprise. I don’t know what we had been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this crowded hall with a band wailing away on stage. It was initially overwhelming and we almost left immediately, but I’m glad we didn’t. The food was good and, with each beer, the music sounded better. Plus, our ebullient waiter just kept on bringing out free tapas. If you don’t mind noise, head here for a fun meal in an authentically Yucatecan setting. [Location]

Bio Restaurant Cura-Kit

Here’s a restaurant that I can almost guarantee won’t appear in your guidebook. We only decided to eat at the Bio-Restaurant Cura-Kit (on C/ 48 and 71, adjacent to El Arco Hotel) because it was so close to our house. As luck would have it, it turned out to be one of our very favorites. They have daily specials at great prices, just 50 pesos for a huge plate, with a drink included. We especially liked eating here on Mondays, when the special was brochetas (chicken shish-kabobs). [Location]

La Vida Catarina

Found on C/ 60 between the Plaza Grande and Santa Lucia, La Vida Catarina was the restaurant in Mérida which we visited more than any other. It was our default; if we couldn’t be bothered to think of anything else, we knew we’d be happy here, safe inside its charming courtyard, with its daily drink specials, unobtrusive waitstaff and quiet music. Yes, quiet music! In Mexico! We came here over and over, and never could figure out why it wasn’t more crowded. [Location]

Salamanca Grill

Friends had recommended an Argentine grill called La Rueda, but when we showed up on a Monday afternoon, it was closed. A woman passing by on the street saw our looks of despair and recommended we try the nearby Salamanca Grill. Ma’am, on the off chance that you’re reading this… we thank you from the bottom of our stomachs. Our meal here was one of the best we had in Mérida. A small, dark restaurant with huge, mouthwatering steaks at prices that almost made me feel guilty. Perhaps La Rueda would have been just as good, but I can’t imagine it being better. [Location]

Restaurante Mary’s

We had walked by Restaurante Mary’s at least a dozen times, and always this cheap and simple cantina on C/ 63 was packed full with locals. That’s a good sign, and though we kept promising ourselves to check it out, we never did. Finally, on our last week in Mérida, we remembered Mary’s, and it was just as good as we suspected it would be. We’d eaten a lot of cheap, quick meals around the nearby Mercado de San Benito which weren’t bad, but none could compare in value or quality to this one. [Location]

Yucatan Cook Book

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February 15, 2014 at 10:29 pm Comments (3)

Sotuta de Peon

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During the Yucatán’s henequen boom, there were close to a thousand haciendas (plantations) in operation across the state. Today, they’re nearly all in ruins. And in the area surrounding Mérida, only one still manufactures henequen: Sotuta de Peon. We joined a tour of the hacienda which led us through a mansion, the factory, a Maya house in the agave fields, a cenote, and ended at a restaurant serving up Yucatecan specialties.

Hacienda Sotuta de Peon

Our tour started in the hacienda’s main residence, which was filled with antique furniture and framed, faded photographs of the family who once lived here. Like all other henequen plantations, Sotuta de Peon closed up shop after the introduction of synthetic fibers in the mid-twentieth century. It was only recently purchased by a local businessman, renovated and restored to working operations.

Outside the mansion, we were introduced to the henequen-making process. The fiber comes from the leaves of an agave plant, similar to that which produces tequila. We saw both the old, labor-intensive method for producing the fiber and then moved to the more modern machinery. I use the term “modern” in a relative sense; these massive, roaring machines date from the early 1900s. We watched as stacks of henequen leaves were deposited into the machine, which broke them and “combed” the fiber out of the plant’s flesh.

Next, we boarded a cart hitched to a mule and set off into the fields where, at the top of a hill, Don Antonio was awaiting us in his palapa. He’s been living and working at Sotuta de Peon for most of his life and, since retiring from field work, has become a part of the hacienda’s tour. After explaining the process of cutting henequen, he showed us around his home, expressing his wonder and gratitude about his lot in life. Years ago as a simple henequen cutter, he couldn’t have imagined that he’d ever meet so many people from all around the world, and he seemed as interested in us as we were in him.

After saying “ka’a xi’itech” to our new friend, another short mule ride brought us to Sotuta de Peon’s cenote, where we had an hour to swim and enjoy a drink at the mobile “Wagon Bar”. The water was warm, and the underground cenote was more beautiful than we had expected. During our three months in the Yucatán, we saw many cenotes, and kept waiting for one to disappoint us. But it never happened.

Our tour ended with lunch in the hacienda’s restaurant. The food was excellent, and the prices reasonable. The tour itself, in fact, is a major bargain considering everything that it entails. If you have time to visit just a single hacienda during your time in the Yucatán, you’d be well-advised to make it the Sotuta de Peon.

Location on our Map
Sotuta de Peon – Website

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February 15, 2014 at 4:06 pm Comments (0)

The Railway Museum of Mérida

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Once upon a time, the Yucatán had a popular and far-reaching network of passenger locomotives. Today, most of the train stations scattered across the peninsula are little more than ruins. Mérida’s, however, has been converted into a museum dedicated to the machines that once chugged through the jungles.

Train Museum Merida

If you’re a train fan, you’re going to love this museum, which asks for just a small donation on entry. And even if you’re not big on trains, you should still have a good time. The old locomotives are beautiful and you can climb into many of them. A couple have been refurbished, but most are still in their original, half-decrepit condition.

Unfortunately, the museum doesn’t provide information about any of the trains. So if you’re not the kind of person who can confidently tell a 4-4-0 locomotive from a 4-6-2, you’re not going to know what you’re looking at. But the photo opportunities are great and you don’t need special knowledge to enjoy exploring old trains. This museum will especially appeal to kids and, should you have any questions, the knowledgeable manager is usually around.

Location on our Map

Our Visit To The Train Cemetery In Bolivia

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February 14, 2014 at 3:08 pm Comments (0)

The Forgotten Ruins of Oxkintok

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Okay, so the ancient Maya site of Oxkintok is not “forgotten” in any true sense of the word. It appears on maps and in guidebooks, and there are people waiting at the entrance to collect your fee. But once you’re inside, wandering about ruins half-reclaimed by the jungle, so distant from the next town, Oxkintok feels forgotten. And you’re allowed to feel like the intrepid adventurer who discovered it.

We’ve learned that, in terms of quality, the place you’re visiting and the experience of visiting it are often completely distinct. I mean, Rome is essential, but visiting it can be excruciating. It’s tiring, dirty, crowded, overwhelming. In contrast, the tiny town of Sandpoint, Idaho has nothing specific to recommend it, but it’s so beautiful, peaceful and remote, that it’s hard to imagine anyone not falling in love with it. But if someone came to me and said, “I can spend a week in either Rome or Sandpoint, which should it be?” Obviously, the answer is Rome. There’s no doubt. But really, you’d probably enjoy yourself more in Sandpoint.

This is what I was thinking about while picking my way among the ruins of Oxkintok, found in the southeastern corner of Yucatán State. We were visiting soon after our trip to Chichén Itzá, and the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. To reach Oxkintok, we had embarked on a long trico ride along unpaved and increasingly bumpy roads from Maxcanú. Although the ruins here weren’t anywhere near as glorious as those we’ve seen elsewhere, they were far from unimpressive.

Oxkintok looks just like the crumbling Maya cities of my imagination. We were the only tourists here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn we were the first in a very long time. The place just feels abandoned, and I mean that in the very best sense of the word. We had a blast hiking from temple to temple, free to climb around many of them, occasionally spotting strange sculptures or statues sticking out of the jungle, often spooked by a loud rustle from some bit of undergrowth near our feet.

Unlike our visits to other Maya sites, I largely disregarded the information which was posted in front of the most important buildings. Here, I didn’t really care whether this was Structure B8 or A3, or in what year it was built. I simply enjoyed the sensation of adventure and discovery, unconcerned about committing dates and facts to memory. We appreciated Oxkintok not for what it used to be, but for what it’s become: the most atmospheric ruins we saw during our time in the Yucatán.

Location on our Map

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February 3, 2014 at 11:17 pm Comments (0)

The Plazas of Mérida

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Though they’re beginning to blend together, Mérida is still largely defined by its neighborhoods, each with its own personality and history. Neighborhood life is almost always centered around a central plaza, where friends and family gather to meet, eat, chat, and just hang out. Here are five of our favorites.

Plaza de Santa Lucia

Just a couple blocks north of the Plaza Grande, Santa Lucia is the cultural heart of the city. Every Thursday night, you can grab a seat for a free traditional trova concert, but all throughout the week you’ll see people dancing, singing, playing guitar or doing Zumba on the stage which sits in the corner of the plaza, ringed by busts of famous Yucatecan artists. A couple of excellent restaurants fill out the plaza with tables in the courtyard. Apoala is one of our favorites, serving excellent modern Mexican cuisine. There’s no better way to spend a humid evening in Mérida, than sitting down for a margarita and watching whatever happens to be going on in the plaza. And there’s always something going on. [Location]

Plaza de San Cristóbal

Cristóbal was our “home” plaza, so although it hardly ranks as Mérida’s finest, it’s our favorite. Because it’s ours. That’s our laundromat, right between our office supply store and our habitual cheap-lunch station. Our laundry girl knows us collectively as “Miguel”. I am Miguel, Jürgen is Miguel, and together we are The Miguel. Over the course of 91 days, she’s become intimately familiar with every piece of clothing we own, and could easily pick our underwear out of a lineup. Oh that? That’s our church, not that we’ve ever attended a service. Whoa, who’s sitting on our bench? That’s alright, go ahead and enjoy yourself, we weren’t using it anyway. Ahh… we’re going to miss you, San Cristóbal (but you’ll always be ours!) [Location]

Plaza de San Juan

The Plaza de San Juan, found a few blocks southeast of the Plaza Grande, is perhaps best known for the ancient arch which once formed part of the barrier separating the city proper from the colonias of indigenous people. But in the early nineteenth century, under the direction of its liberal priest, the church of San Juan was the meeting spot for an enlightened group known as los Sanjuanistas, who fought against the Spanish Crown on behalf of the belabored Maya and creole populations. Continually persecuted by the landed elite and the clergy, los Sanjuanistas were prohibited from meeting and often tossed into jail. But in the end, they and their allies managed to achieve a brief period of Yucatecan independence. [Location]

Plaza de Santiago

The Plaza de Santiago is just as gorgeous and refined as the neighborhood surrounding it, which is perhaps Mérida’s most desirable. The plaza boasts a grand old church built in 1637, but it’s the modern life which most commands attention: the kids on the playground, the old men sitting around the fountain, and especially the bustling market with its range of excellent and super-affordable loncherías. This is Mérida at its most colonial and, unsurprisingly, the area most attractive to expats. [Location]

Plaza de Santa Ana

Although Santa Ana is found at the foot of the Paseo Montejo, it shares none of that boulevard’s ritzy atmosphere. This is a simple plaza and park with a beautiful little church, a popular market and a few places to grab some cheap eats. In the center of the plaza is a statue of Andrés Quintana Roo, one of the heroes of Mexican independence. And this was the scene of an important moment in Mexican history. In 1867, supporters of the ruling, royalist regime clashed with Mexican republicans loyal to Benito Juarez. The republicans earned a decisive victory, which helped bring the Napoleon-backed Mexican Empire to its eventual end. [Location]

Great Hotels In Mérida

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February 3, 2014 at 6:57 pm Comment (1)

The Legend of the Makech

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Jürgen and I aren’t the types to spend much time thinking about jewelry. Neither of us owns a single piece, not a ring nor a bracelet, and I very rarely notice the jewelry worn by others. But when the piece in question is a living beetle, it’s a little hard to ignore.

The Yucatan Makech

The Makech is the strangest fashion item we’ve ever seen. These large beetles, found only in the Yucatán Peninsula, have broad shells that can be decorated with gemstones. They feed on sporophores which grow on a specific type of wood endemic to the Yucatán, and can live for up to eight months. Attached to a golden chain, they’re worn as pendants by Maya women and kept as pets.

According to legend, a Maya princess was destined to marry the prince of a neighboring kingdom, but instead fell in love with a noble warrior from her own village. Enraged, her father announced his intention to kill the warrior. The fear-stricken young woman wailed, and pleaded with the king for the life of her beloved. If he were spared, she swore, she would willingly marry the prince as had originally been the plan.

The king listened to his sobbing daughter and consoled her. Her handsome warrior would live. And the promise was kept… in a way. A wizard was called in and, before the eyes of the court, turned the handsome young man into a wretched beetle. Horrified, the princess scooped him into her hands and ran off to her room. She adorned the beetle with the most beautiful jewels she could find and placed him on her breast, so he would always be near her heart.

The Makech is a custom on its way out. Today, it’s exceptionally rare to see women actually wearing one, and finding a store which sells them can be tricky. We asked around Mérida’s Mercado de Artesanias, on Calle 65/58, and eventually tracked down a shop that had a few richly-decorated makeches stumbling around a little cage. I held one briefly. They’re quite large and powerful, and I couldn’t imagine it crawling around my chest all day, even if it were my lost beloved.

Location of the Mercado de Artesanias

Travel Health Insurance For Your Yucatan Trip

The Yucatan Makech
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February 3, 2014 at 6:01 pm Comments (3)

The Ruins of Aké

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On the way home to Mérida from Izamal, we swung by the small village and archaeological site of Aké. Requiring a long drive off the main highway, it’s a town which feels forgotten by the march of time.

Ake Yucatan

The ruins are not the most impressive that we saw during our time in the Yucatán, but are found so far off the beaten path that visiting them is quite fun. The site was completely empty, as I would venture is usually the case, and we had the run of it. We climbed to the top of the main structure, the Edificio de las Palastras, and walked along the walls which form the perimeter, all alone under the heavy sun.

Before leaving, we noticed a path leading into the jungle, and followed this for a couple hundred meters to yet another set of ruins. At the top, two deep caves were hollowed out into the rock. Alone in the woods and standing atop an ancient ruin which must have served as a dwelling for Maya holy men, it was hard not to feel the rush of adventure.

Next to the site is an old henequen factory, which we assumed had long been abandoned. But on our way out, we could hear the hum of machines emanating from within. Peering through the window, we saw that the old machinery of this factory was still in operation. Apparently, it’s possible to tour the plant, although this is something we unfortunately didn’t have time to do.

Location on our Map

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February 3, 2014 at 2:22 pm Comments (0)

Izamal’s Pre- and Post-Columbian Wonders

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Izamal is a small city and you don’t need a lot of time to familiarize yourself with it, but you will need sturdy legs. Both of its main sights, the ancient Maya pyramid Kinich Kakmó and the somewhat-less-ancient Convent of San Antonio de Padua, involve a lot of stairs and climbing.

Izamal Convent

Kinich Kakmó is just one of the many pyramids which define the horizon of Izamal, but it’s by far the biggest. From the ground, it doesn’t look so intimidating, but this pile of rocks and grass just keeps going up, up, up until you can see well over the jungle which surrounds the city. Dedicated to the Sun God, the pyramid was a place of pilgrimage and worship, and was the nexus of the Maya city.

Just a couple blocks away is the Convento de San Antonio de Padua, erected by none other than the despicable Fray Diego de Landa, the Catholic crazy-man who perpetrated the auto-da-fe in Maní and destroyed the bulk of Mayan literature in one fell swoop. In Izamal, he cast his ruinous gaze upon the Maya acropolis, ordering it razed for the placement of a new Jesuit convent.

Izamal Convent
Note: This isn’t the whole pyramid, just the top section of it

It didn’t take long after the construction of the convent for a miracle to occur in Izamal. (Actually, let’s put that in quotes. A “miracle”.) During a trip to Guatemala, De Landa had picked up a statue of the Virgin, which he erected in the Convento de San Antonio de Padua. The jealous citizens of nearby Valladolid decided that the Virgin would look better in their city, and sent a crew to steal it. But on their way out of Izamal, just as they were passing under the city gate, the statue became ponderously heavy, and could not be lifted even by the combined strength of ten men.

It was a miracle! And a pretty trivial one, if you ask me. I mean, this is 1560 or something and there are thousands of impoverished Maya suffering under the boot of Spanish oppression. But God decides to make a statue heavy, so that one city’s gilded riches can’t be brought to another? It’s all about priorities, I suppose, and anyway it was enough to convince Pope John Paul II, who traveled to Izamal in 1993 to officially bless the miraculous Virgin.

After climbing the steps that lead to the convent, and hiking to the top of Kinich Kakmó, you’ll probably have had enough walking. Luckily, a fleet of finely outfitted horse wait in the plaza to take visitors on a carriage tour of Izamal, no exercise required. We didn’t have time for this, but it’s surprisingly affordable and perhaps the best way to see the town.

Locations on our Map: Kinich Kakmó | Convento de San Antonio de Padua

Great Place To Stay In Izamal

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February 2, 2014 at 10:03 pm Comments (0)

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Ka'a Xi'itech, Yucatn Once again, another 91 days have come and gone. This time, we're saying adiós to the Yucatán Peninsula. Our three months here were amazing; an almost perfect mix of history, culture, sight-seeing and adventure. We're leaving with tanned bodies, relaxed minds, and memories that we won't soon forget.
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