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The Perfect City by Personal Standards (Vienna, Austria)

Vienna, Austria
Image by Kliefi

The first time I went to Vienna, I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. I was tired after a two-week trip to Africa, and headed back to the U.S. a couple days later. The dollar had hit another all-time low against the euro the day before my arrival, providing even less motivation for visiting an expensive European city I expected to find crawling with tourists.

All that to say that the city of Vienna completely surprised me by how truly beautiful it was. From start to finish, virtually everything about my stay went right. From the airport I took the express CAT train to the Landstraße station, where I changed to the underground metro. At the city station, an Austrian Airlines check-in desk allowed me to check in to my ongoing flight even though it was two days away. I took my boarding pass for a flight that wasn't leaving for 36 hours, which I didn’t even think was possible until they handed it to me.

Walking down to the subway, a guy approached me, saying something I didn’t understand. “Entschuldigung, ich spreche kein Deutsch,” I replied, using a full third of my German vocabulary.

Oh,” he said in English. “Can you please spare 90 cents?

I’m always impressed by multilingual panhandlers. In America they could work for the U.N., but elsewhere in the world they have to ask for spare change in the subway. Anyway, the metro line took me exactly where my directions said it would, and I found my hostel a few short blocks away.

If this sounds normal, it’s not—I have a recurring experience of getting lost nearly everywhere I go, usually with my bags and often for an hour or more. It’s a small miracle when I successfully arrive at my destination in an unfamiliar city without getting lost at least once.

The hostel was just what I needed: a small dorm room with a writing desk and a window that looked out over a pretty courtyard. After dropping off my bags, I walked to a bakery I had seen on the way in. The sun was shining and I sat outside for 40 minutes, sipping cappuccino and brainstorming some notes for a business project. Life is good, I thought.

That evening I did some more business work and went running along the river Wien. It was incredibly relaxing and served as a good capstone for my first day in the city.

***

The next day was much the same—perfect chocolate croissants, friendly people, fun streets to wander. The skies were overcast and it rained off and on throughout the day, but I live in Seattle, so that didn’t bother me.

At the end of the trip I decided two things: first, I love Vienna and will start using it as a Star Alliance hub city instead of Frankfurt from now on. Second, I realized that part of what I like or dislike about certain places has to do with fairly narrow, personal standards. Is it a nice country to run in? Are there fun discoveries to be made? Of course there always are, but are they my kind of discoveries?

I hope I’m not becoming materialistic. At any rate, I do try to find beauty wherever I am. And by these admittedly personal and quirky standards, Vienna is beautiful. I spent my last morning at my favorite café, where I had gradually become amazingly fluent in ordering various kinds of coffee and croissants. This might not get me a job at the U.N., but it’s a good skill for my own travel needs.

When I went back to the airport, I headed straight to departures thanks to the boarding pass I received two days earlier. I left Vienna and traveled further east to Romania, which I expected to be a fairly direct contrast to everything I found in Austria.

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The Ancient Hotel in the Ancient City of Valletta

Valletta, Malta - Land of Anachronisms
Image by GordonMcKenna
You might expect that a hotel which offers its cheapest room for €299 ($440) a night would be pretty luxurious. Here in the city of Valletta on the island of Malta, I’m staying at the Le Meridian Phoenicia, where I noticed the room rates sign at the check-in desk.

Of course, I’m not paying €299; I’m staying here for free using my Starwood points, where the same room goes for a bargain rate of 7,000 points a night. This turns out to be a smart decision for more reasons than one.

From the web site, the place looks gorgeous. Visiting in person, it looks like it was possibly gorgeous about 30 years ago.

I’m given a real key to my room instead of a room card, and when I get there via the creaking elevator that holds a maximum of three people, it doesn’t work. I head back downstairs with my bags for an apology and a new key.

My dusty room has a no-smoking sign on the wall and an ashtray on the desk, which of course I find amusing. I drink three glasses of water from the tap, and it tastes like drinking straight out of a swimming pool. As I set the glass down for the third time, I notice a picture near the sink that seems to imply that the drinking water is unsafe. Too late for that, and I’m sure not opening the mini-bar to pay for mineral water.

The Cocktail Party

At check-in, I was also given an invitation to a “Management Cocktail Party” at 6:30 that evening. I’m not sure what to expect, but on the principle that you should never turn down a free drink from a $400 hotel, I decide to attend. After resting in my room and watching French TV for an hour, I put on my nicest clothes (which aren’t very nice after a week of traveling without any laundry opportunities) and head downstairs to the lounge.

I take a free glass of bad chardonnay and check out the room. In a full ballroom, I observe that I am the youngest person by about 80 years. Okay, maybe it's more like 30 years… but it certainly seems like everyone else here has come straight from the nursing home for cocktail night at Le Meridian.

There is a French corner and a British corner, but other than the language, you couldn’t tell them apart. Every single person is white, old, and looks strangely comfortable in this ancient hotel. It’s like a reunion of the Greatest Generation from both sides of the channel. I try to take a quick photo as inconspicuously as possible while balancing my chardonnay and a handful of peanuts, but it doesn't come out well. A waiter gives me a bad look, so I put the camera back in my pocket.

a•nach•ro•nism. noun. something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time, esp. a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time.

Later I run four miles around the city and down by the seaport. The hospital ship I worked with for four years in West Africa was registered here in Valletta, and more than 20 years ago it had docked in the city for registration and maritime certificates. I enjoy running along the docks of each side of the water, wondering which quay our ship had docked at and thinking about my memories of those amazing days from 2002-2006.

Afterwards I wander through the town, eventually buying an olive calzone to take back to my room at the hotel. The next day I run some more, explore the fort, and after another night of takeout olive calzone (no free drinks on your second night, apparently) I check out of the anachronistic Le Meridian.

I ignore the taxi drivers waving to me outside and take the bus back to the small airport. I'll be flying back to Vienna, and the strange visit now feels eerily comfortable to me, just as it apparently does to the centenarians at the hotel. I'm writing these short notes in the departure lounge, and now it's time to leave this island nation behind and return to the continent.

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Lost in Singapore


Image by tobym
First – thank you to everyone so far who has purchased my first product, the Unconventional Guide to Discount Airfare. I am truly grateful.

If you weren’t here yesterday, you can read more about it in the expected location. Against the conventional wisdom of scarcity, I plan to keep selling and improving it for a long time.

And now -

This is the story in which I am provided a geographic tour of Singaporean prostitutes, reflect on the biggest travel month of my life, and sleep in Changi airport prior to heading back to Hong Kong on the ultimate no-frills airline.

It’s a bit long—if you’re not interested in my travel diaries, you might not like this one. But if you’re up for it, here it is.

The last time I was in Singapore, things didn’t go so well – I walked into the glass door of a Starbucks on Orchard Road. My head recovered quickly, but my pride was wounded for the rest of the day.

Today I’m between Brunei, an odd little country completely surrounded by Malaysia, and Hong Kong on a nice 36-hour transit stop. I arrived mid-afternoon, which means I officially have one-and-a-half nights to spend before catching a 6am flight back to HKG. The first night I had planned to stay in a budget hotel, and the second night I expect to hang out at Changi Airport.

Singapore is the Asian city all travel writers love to hate.

Almost any commentary on visiting here is filled with references to canings and chewing gum. The implication is that Singapore is uptight, militant, and boring. Mention you are going to Singapore among established travel writers, and many will roll their eyes. “Why don’t you go up to Malaysia or down to Indonesia for some real culture?”

Yeah, yeah. Actually, I like Singapore just fine. It has a culture all of its own. Sure, part of that culture is somewhat manufactured – but that doesn’t mean it’s not culture in its own way.

On the train from Changi Airport, I listen to my iPod and say silent prayers for being finished with Brunei and on my way back home. In Singapore I have no schedule or major travel mysteries to solve, and I am happy for that.

The Red-Light Hotel 81

For my one night in the city before sleeping in the airport the next night, I’ve booked the cheapest hotel I could possibly find. Times are hard these days, and that’s just how it goes. The YWCA I stayed in before goes for $90 a night, but I’ve found a cheaper place further out of town in the Geylang district – which also happens to be the red-light district.

When I learn this information about my neighborhood, I’m a little surprised. I had no idea that Singapore even had a red-light district, but indeed they do. I get out of the train and hail a taxi to take me to the hotel. Along the short journey, the driver gives me an unrequested run-down on the prices of the local prostitutes.

“This area here, this is Chinese area. Chinese prostitutes, very expensive—maybe $80!” he says. ($80 in Singapore dollars is about $60 U.S.). He looks back at me for encouragement, but I don’t give him any. Nevertheless, he keeps going.

“Indonesian prostitutes over here—they go cheaper, lah. Maybe $30!”

I tell him I’m only interested in sleeping in my room tonight, but he doesn’t take the hint. “Over here, Malay prostitutes, over there, Thai prostitutes…” and on it goes.

It’s like the ASEAN of prostitutes in this neighborhood, with every nationality assigned its own couple of blocks. When I check in to the budget hotel, a Chinese guy next to me is paying for a stay of two hours. A sign reads “Only two people are allowed in the rooms after 11pm.”

Well, this is definitely not the vibe I get up at the YMCA, which does stand for Young Men’s Christian Association, after all. But the room is clean, and I take a quick shower, leave my bags, and head out to the parts of the city I’m more interested in.

The rest of the day, I walk. First I take the MRT over to Little India, a great neighborhood I’ve never managed to explore before.

Unlike a lot of Chinatowns, it really is like its own, well, little India. After a late lunch of potato curry, I head over to Orchard Road, Singapore’s central shopping area and also a nice place to walk in the early evening. I had just ran about 13 miles in Brunei the evening before, so my legs are pretty tired. I walk along at a slow pace, thinking about the whole trip that will be coming to an end soon.

The next day I head out to Changi Airport for an overnight stay before a 6am flight. I’ve decided to save money again and sleep on the airport floor, which at Changi is usually not as bad as it may sound if you haven’t been there.

Changi is frequently voted the #1 airport in the world, and for good reason. Transit passengers have access to free Xbox gaming consoles, internet-enabled PCs throughout the airport, nice relaxation rooms, a movie theatre, and even an outdoor garden you can sit in to pass the time. If you’re transiting in Singapore between 4 and 24 hours, the city will even send you on a free tour into the city, or give you a complimentary transfer shuttle so you can make your own tour.

In short, if you are going to sleep on the floor of an airport, Singapore is one of your better choices. I had planned to hang out in the garden, get caught up on emails, have a nice dinner at the vegetarian restaurant (yes, they have one of those too), and then crash out down by the Oasis lounge, where reclining chairs are freely provided.

There was just one problem… as there often is when traveling.

I do most of my long-haul travel on the Star Alliance and OneWorld networks, with major airlines like Cathay Pacific, Austrian, Thai, and so on. But I do a lot of side trips on low-cost carriers, which are ubiquitous throughout Asia and Europe.

On this side trip, I was traveling between Singapore and Hong Kong on JetStar Asia, a budget carrier in the truest sense. On JetStar Asia, you can’t even get a cup of water without paying extra for it… and they don’t allow you to bring your own food or drinks on board.

I know, I know – it’s almost as bad as Air Canada or any major U.S. airline. But the most troubling thing to me was that in addition to charging $1.80 for a cup of water, JetStar also does not allow anyone to check-in for a flight more than two hours prior to departure.

I didn’t realize this before I got to the airport, because I frequently get boarding passes for up to 36 hours in advance from other airlines. Then I’m free to cross security to the transit side, hang out in the lounge if I have access, or do whatever I want.

Anyway, I found out about 2pm that afternoon that I would not be able to get a boarding pass for my flight until 4am the next morning. This was definitely an unexpected disappointment, because it meant that my whole plan of spending the night in the transit area would not be possible now.

Happiness and Expectations

Writer Gretchen Rubin is publishing a book on the search for happiness next year, and I’m eager to hear what she has to say about it when the time comes. For me, I’ve learned through travel that happiness is largely related to expectations and perception.

I had been looking forward to the meal and the relatively comfortable place to sleep on the airport floor. With that plan, I’d get up about 5:15 in the morning and walk straight to the gate with boarding pass in hand. But without the boarding pass, of course, none of that was possible.

I’d have to fend for myself in the check-in area (which had less comfortable chairs and no carpeting, just a hard floor), and I would also have to wake up at 4:00, queue for the check-in, go through immigration and security, and then have another hour to wait until the flight actually boarded.

With my expectations dashed, I felt disappointed and unhappy. But when I thought about if further, I realized I had been in far more serious situations before. I mean, just last week I arrived in Pakistan without a visa. This should be easy, right?

I gave myself the “get over it” talk – also known as ass-kicking – and realized further that it was 2pm and I hadn’t eaten anything all day. (The lovely Hotel 81 in Geylang offers the option of two-hour rooms, but no complimentary breakfast.) After I ate some nice fried noodles with chili sauce, I immediately felt better about the situation.

I left my bags at the drop-off office downstairs, and went back into town on the MTR. After walking around Raffles Place for a while, I took the long way back to Changi. There wasn’t anything waiting for me there, and besides, I like to walk. For about an hour and a half, I walked through downtown, going along the Singapore river and then the Boat Quay area. Singapore is usually hot and sticky, but halfway through my walk, it cooled down.

Goodbye, Southeast Asia

My trip was coming to an end, and I was heading home. At 6am I’d be back on the no-frills flight to Hong Kong, then a connection to Tokyo and a long-haul flight across the Pacific the following morning. This trip had been far more tiring than usual, but I also made some good progress towards my long-term travel goal.

I realized I had been in a lot of places recently:

Pakistan – where I arrived without a visa, but then had a great week hanging out in Karachi.

Brunei – which was not really my kind of place, but I did have a great two-hour run and saw The Dark Knight with some Malaysians at the theatre in Bandar Seri Begawan.

San Marino – where I rented a car from the Rome airport and drove 12 hours round-trip to visit the Europe’s smallest republic. What, you don’t remember that story? It’s probably because I haven’t written about it yet. In fact, I may never write about it, because it didn’t go very well. But I did it, and I’ve been to San Marino now.

Mongolia – where I was evicted from my guesthouse—a first for me. It’s over, so that’s good. But it was also cool to see the Genghis Khan Brewery and other interesting cultural sites.

Poland – where I had another great run, also about 13 miles or so along the Vistula riverbank in Warsaw. I also learned I had made my biggest travel mistake ever, but I’ve gotten over it by now.

Northern Iraq, AKA Kurdistan – where I took off from my time in Eastern Europe to visit over a weekend. I was impressed with the culture and felt completely safe the whole time I was there.

Russia, Moldova, and Beyond – where I trekked through the Baltics, on to Russia, on Moldovan Airlines to Chisinau, and a train to Bucharest… before flying back to Vienna.

Yes, it was quite the journey. As I write this out in my journal this afternoon, I realize there’s a good reason why I’ve been so tired lately.

Thankfully, being tired works in my favor when nighttime comes, at least tonight in Singapore. I go back to Changi and enjoy a surprisingly good meal in the subway area below the airport. It also costs half the price of the $9 meal in the real airport, so I’m doubly-content. I buy a beer at the downstairs grocery store (they have one of those at Changi too) and head up to the check-in area, where I’ll make my “bed” on a couple of plastic chairs.

It’s not comfortable and they never dim the bright lights even after the last flight has left, but because I’m so tired I manage to sleep about four or five hours. I wake up sleepy-eyed, but ready to check-in and move on at 4:00 a.m.

I fly back on the uneventful JetStar Asia, but the good news this time is that the flight is half-full. I have a row of three seats to myself, and right after takeoff I fall asleep across the whole row. Nearly three hours go by before I wake up as we descend to Hong Kong, and I’m very thankful for the extra sleep.

Home from Japan

And then, a few hours later, I was heading back to Tokyo on the wonderful Japan Airlines, which provides consistently great service. Hot towels are brought out to everyone in all classes, and everyone gets a welcome drink. The 15 flight attendants, who are all women, are super-polite.

“Excuse me, sir,” says one of them as we are all boarding. “Is it alright if I ask you to please turn off your iPod before the departure?”

Being asked like that puts you in a great mood for the flight. Yes, it is quite alright. Thank you for asking so nicely.

The next morning, I'm on the way across the water, and I watch Kung-Fu Panda and type up these notes for everyone. Next stop, Seattle, my home city. It’s nice to travel, and it’s nice to come home.

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Unconventional Guide to Discount Airfare – Now Available

discount-airfare-guide
Image by UBS
Today I am proud to announce the release of my first commercial product on the Art of Nonconformity site. After receiving a ton of email from many readers asking for more practical details on how I travel, I decided to take the plunge and write an ebook on discount airfare.

In this 29-page guide, I document the good and the bad about flying in North America and beyond. Through general tactics, specific examples, and stories of adventures gone wrong (and right), I explain how to purchase airfare at discounted prices anywhere in the world. In short, the guide will help you travel more often for less money.

Click here to read more or to purchase the guide.

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Conversations in Karachi

karachi-street-market
Image by megabeth
Almost without exception, the hundreds of people I’ve met in dozens of countries are nearly always happy to meet an American. Most people are smart enough to separate a government’s policies, which they may or may not agree with, from an average citizen who happens to be traveling in their country.

As previously reported, I often end up having the same conversations over and over in different parts of the world. I don’t always respond to the usual “Where are you from?” icebreaker question right away, but after talking with someone for a few minutes, I don’t hesitate to say I am from the U.S.A.

In Pakistan, where I spent the better part of last week, this was certainly the case. The stock dialogue usually goes like this:

“Oh, you are from America. That is a very nice place!”

“Yes, well, Pakistan is nice too. I’m happy to be here.”

“Really? You like it here?” (They usually sound a bit surprised.)

“Yes, very much.”

And so it goes, ad nauseum, the same conversation everywhere with a few variations.

On the way back to the Karachi airport after my four-day visit, the taxi driver and I have this conversation for a while, and then he leans forward and says, “You know, I want to tell you something about America.”

As he says this, I have déjà vu all over again. I have seen this movie before, and I know exactly what comes next.

“American people very nice,” he says, sounding like a Pakistani Borat. “Pakistani people like American people very much.”

Yes, I know what comes next, because I’ve heard it in Uganda, in Vietnam, and Romania.

“But Mr. Bush,” he says. “We don’t like him or Mr. Musharraf.” (Mr. Musharraf is the president of Pakistan, although he’s in the process of being impeached this week.)

Then there are the references to Guantanamo, Iraq, the difficulty of getting visas to the U.S., and so on. It’s usually a bit depressing to hear the litany, and there’s not much you can say except “Sorry about that.” But this time, since we’re closing in on November, I have a better response.

“Well,” I say, “We are having an election in America very soon, and next year there will be a new president.”

And here is the part of the conversation I did not expect, the one variation in the simultaneous love of America and indictment of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy that I hear pretty much everywhere.

“Yes! The election!” the driver says, taking his hands off the wheel and looking at me in the back seat as I frantically watch the road in front of us. “You will have Mr. Obama as president!”

I laugh at this unexpected statement. Should I try to explain that Obama has not yet been elected, and there is in fact another candidate in the race? It’s probably too complicated.

“You know of Mr. Obama?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says. “Everyone here is talking about him.”

After careful deliberation, the taxi drivers of Karachi have apparently decided to endorse Obama in the American election. When I ask my driver what he and his friends think of the other candidate, he says, “You mean Mrs. Clinton?”

***

One of the things I love most about traveling is conversations like that one. Every time I meet someone like my driver in Karachi, I walk away with the conviction that I couldn’t make these stories up if I tried. I have my share of misadventures, but I also meet incredible people with ways of life that are completely different from my own. I don't usually have a desire to live my life the way they do - I probably won't be moving to Pakistan anytime soon - but I almost always appreciate how different people view the same world.

Later, at the KHI airport, I sit in the departure area waiting for the check-in desk to open up. I look at the departure sign, which reads as follows:

Dubai
Abu Dhabi
Dubai
Kuwait City
Hong Kong via Bangkok
Colombo
Jeddah via Riyadh
Doha

Two-thirds of the flights are to the Persian Gulf, where laborers head off to work for nine months or more. There are also a lot of kids here, though, and a lot of women who don’t keep their distance from me as much as most of them do in the city.

The check-in begins on time. I go through the second security check. At 1:40 a.m. we finally take off to Hong Kong, with a stopover in Bangkok to drop off two-thirds of the passengers. My next stop is Brunei, a small, sleepy Islamic monarchy surrounded by Malaysia. It’s the last stop on the trip, and after this, I’ll be headed home.

###

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Getting to Pakistan

View previous “getting to” entries here: Getting to India Getting to Moldova Full Trip Reports Archive *** As the Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong lands in Karachi, Pakistan, the purser makes the usual landing announcements. You can turn your mobile phones on but please don’t get up until we’re at the gate, be careful…

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My Biggest Travel Mistake Ever

A few days ago I wrote about my misadventures in Mongolia—the primary misadventure in that case being evicted from my guesthouse after midnight. That experience was certainly not fun while it was happening, but in the end, things turned out rather uneventfully. As a follow-up, today I thought I’d tell you about a misadventure that…

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Misadventures in Mongolia

This is the story in which I fly to Mongolia for $44, get kicked out of my guesthouse after midnight, and visit the Genghis Khan brewery. Sounds like fun, right? Well, yes. But I should first explain that in my world, a misadventure does not always refer to a bad day or an unfortunate series…

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Running in Warsaw

I head out in the morning for what I plan as a 6-8 mile run. I’ve never been here before, so my route is somewhat flexible. I Google “Warsaw running” and find a couple of ideas, but mostly what I decide is to simply head north. I’ll run for half an hour or so, then…

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48 Hours in Northern Iraq

Hello everyone, here are the details behind my secret stopover while on the Baltics and Beyond trip. I had a stop on this part of the trip that I deliberately chose not to publicize in advance. The secrecy was partly for safety concerns, but just as much because I wasn’t sure it would work out.…

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Getting to Moldova

Previous Trip Reports: Getting to India Five Journeys to Cotonou, Benin Easter Island to Beirut, Lebanon Leaving Hong Kong Homeless in London Full Archive *** In the parts of the world where globalization has truly set in, skill with languages is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In some cases, I’ve learned, it’s better to play dumb even…

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Beginnings

This is how it all begins. The night before, I pack my bags. I can do this in about 20 minutes if needed, but to be safe, I usually take twice as long. After a lot of experience packing, I have a good system. Running shoes, two pairs of pants, three shirts, and so on.…

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Zimbabwe: Great Place, Bad Government

Because I prefer to write content that will remain relevant for more than a few days, I don’t usually write about current affairs. We’re also coming out of World Domination Week, with the launch of my manifesto and everything related to that. But I decided to postpone what I had planned to write about today,…

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The United States of Arabia

I arrived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after trekking through Jordan and Israel. Flying on Gulf Air, I stopped off in Bahrain for six hours, where I persuaded the immigration guy to let me into the country for a while even though I was in transit. Total cost: $10 for a one-day visa. Six…

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Five Journeys to Cotonou, Benin

Click to enlarge photos. I went to Benin many times between 2003 and 2005—probably about five visits in total. Each time I went, I got more and more comfortable with French, my second language, and more and more comfortable with Francophone Africa, which is a different cultural experience on its own. The first visit was…

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