Archive for the 'Travel' Category

The Soul’s Final Journey: A Funeral in Tana Toraja

Perched at the doorway of his raised house, an old Torajan man stares out at the spectacle below: pigs strapped to bamboo stretchers, buffalo guts lying in the mud. The man’s brother has died, and after months of keeping the embalmed body in the house, it is finally funeral season. After a lifetime on earth, the man’s brother is returning to where all Torajans believe they came from: the stars.

I took a long, queasy bus ride along the edge of Sulawesi to reach the mountains of Tana Toraja, and the cool air is a relief from the usual Indonesian heat. The endless tiers of rice paddies look impossibly alive, the clouds so huge they leap out of the blue sky. But in all this life lurks death: dank caves house countless coffins, and doll-like effigies watch the living from tiny balconies built into the mountainsides.

Villagers dressed in black sit on decks and under canopies, surrounding the scene of the funeral like spectators at a bullfight. Pigs scream as men slit the animals’ throats, packing the guts in bamboo shoots to be cooked. Twenty feet in front of me, though, is the most important sacrifice: three skinned buffalo in a pool of blood.  These buffalo will guide the dead to the afterlife, aid him in his journey towards the land of souls. On earth, his family will feast on the buffalo for days, celebrating the liberation of this man’s soul, reveling in the most important moment of his life.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo and HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

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Riverside Park

After 2  and a half years in Maryland, 4 months in Indonesia, and 5 weeks in Ontario, I am back in New York, sleeping in a Morningside Heights dining room on a pull out couch.

Most days I spend alone hunting for apartments, writing in cafes, gazing out the window to watch the people shuffle by. I try to see myself there in the crowd where I hurried along for 6 years, try to remember New York and the years I spent with it. I do not often find myself: It’s a strange, floating feeling, the New York summertime with no real routine. For these couple of weeks, the only unfailing ritual in my life is walking the dog, morning and evening, through Riverside Park.

New York parks in the summertime can be a little insufferable if you’re feeling lonely. Couples line the benches of Washington Square, college girls splay out in groups on Union Square’s grass. On the streets, people move quickly, eyes trained on their destination as the sweat drips in beads down their backs. The parks are the afterthought to that destination, a place where to and from and how much and how fast are finally punctuated with a sigh. This is where New Yorkers lay themselves out.

But Riverside Park is different. Riverside Park, I’ve come to find, is the park of the solitary, the lonely. It’s where the marginal and forgotten come to feel the sun on their shoulders: The old Jewish lady in horn-rimmed glasses, reading cheap paperbacks at the entrance on 111th street. The black nanny looking tired and a little lost as she rocks a blond-ringleted child in her lap. The man with skinny legs and Birkenstocks who comes to watch the sun set over the Hudson every night.

And there are of course certain types, a changing cast of characters who fit the bill: The pretty, single 30-something sitting on the grass with her dog. The hustler disguised as a business man, his suit jacket hanging from the corner of a bench. The girl in a summer dress standing against the cement barrior between herself and the river below, collecting the things in her purse, collecting herself.

And that’s the difference: New Yorkers don’t come here to splay out but to regroup. They come here to collect their worries and gather them up like stones before returning to the harried streets. This is where they piece together the parts of themselves that have been fragmented by the city’s crowds. And for those who never go down those streets anymore, whose routines are confined to a few blocks surrounding their pre-war, rent-stabilized apartments, this, too, I think, is a place where they come to put themselves back together, to give their lives a discernible shape.

I would be lying if I said I weren’t one of these people, at least for a little while. In the morning, I turn my bed back into a couch, pull on a pair of shorts too big for me, and walk into the day, sleepy-eyed and unshowered. My head is still fuzzy, but my dog and his leash keep me tethered to the ground.  In the evenings, I return, the sky turning pink, the light slanting against the avenue’s buildings. In the quiet, my dogs’ nails hit the pavement as a mournful saxophone comes from somewhere on Broadway. I am alone with the rest of them, and for a moment, I am home again.

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Showcasing Life’s Balance: An Interview with Travel Writer and Photographer Lola Akinmade

Lola in the Bahamas

Take one look at Lola Akinmade’s website of photography and writing and you’ll quickly realize she’s been just about everywhere you’ve marked down on your travel wish list. The girl gets around. Lucky for us, she documents her travels with photos and writing so vivid you feel like she’s brought you along for the ride.

It’s this vibrancy that’s kept me following her work since I stumbled upon her website a year ago. Since that day, I’ve been curious about the trajectory of her career path, why she left a cushy job to work freelance, and how she carved out a place for herself in the world of travel writing and photography. I knew instinctively that I could learn something from her.

In this interview, she sheds a little light on her plans and successes, and talks about the patient, determined steps she’s taken to get where she is today.

Simone: How did you get started traveling?

Lola: For the first fifteen years of my life, I lived in Nigeria and my family always traveled, taking extended trips to the US, UK, and Europe. I went backpacking solo for the first time around 2000-2001, and have been traveling ever since.

Simone: You worked in Geographic Information Sciences ten years before making the leap to freelance travel writing and photography. What prompted you to make that transition? Was it something you had always wanted to do?

Lola: I’ve actually been working within the GIS industry since 1997. Always been a geography nut, and will continue to have a soft-spot for developing interactive maps. While I truly loved my GIS work, my creative side eventually won over my technical side, and I began freelancing on the side.

When it was time to leave, the transition was actually situational because I was relocating to Sweden and my current employer didn’t have any international branches. I still do a bit of consulting and web development through my company, Lemurworks, LLC.

Simone: Can you tell us a little bit about your personal career path in freelance? What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?

Lola: My first “break” occurred when I was chosen to be one of 100 volunteers working with the Eco-Challenge Expedition Race in Fiji. I worked as a field journalist where we were to trail the teams all over the islands and dispatch daily via the website.

Our team of four was writing up daily press releases, doing competitor interviews, filing travel narratives, and so much more. Working behind the scenes of a production of that caliber (producer Mark Burnett, the man behind Survivor also created and produced the Eco-Challenge) taught me so much in just three weeks.

Simone: Did you start out online or in print? If online, was it challenging to transition to print work?

That stint with Eco-Challenge got me interested in travel writing. Then one day, back in 2007 while researching round-the-world trips, I stumbled across a budding online community called Matador Travel at the time and one of my favorite editors on earth, David Miller. David was willing to take a chance on my writing, and spent time mentoring me through my first pitch.

Today, Matador Network is the largest interactive travel magazine and one of the coolest communities on earth.  Plus, I’m now the editor of Matador Goods.

After collecting enough online clips, including creating a website for showcasing work, I felt confident enough to start pitching to various print outlets with links to online samples.

Now I regularly write for a couple major print publications.

Simone: Your blog is an enviable chronicle of travels all over the world, told vibrantly through the lens of your photography and writing. To fund these travels, have you ever had to do other work to make ends meet?

Lola: I’m blushing….thanks! I started freelancing on the side while holding a cushy  fulltime job as a GIS System Architect, so I was blessed to be able to afford traveling without worrying too much.

In anticipation of transitioning into fulltime freelancing, I started saving a lot more. Now as a fulltime freelancer, I’m more cognizant of expenses and also try to be smarter about what types of  writing and photography gigs I take.

It’s more time-efficient for me to write a 500-word article for $500 than 50 blog posts for $10 each. I’m also open to taking a few press trips to help offset some travel costs.

As mentioned earlier, I do some freelance web development as well through Lemurworks to supplement.

Simone: Are there any writers or photographers that have inspired the character of your work?

Too many to list. Seriously. I love traditional photojournalism. While I appreciate hard-hitting war documentary photography, I’m drawn more to daily slice-of-life photojournalism that showcases life‘s balance.

I really like Ed Kashi’s work from the oil-rich, conflict-prone Delta region of my home country, Nigeria. I also admire Glenna Gordon, Ami Vitale, and Alison Wright.

I love working with nonprofit organizations, documenting their field work in different countries through writing and photography. If I could find a way to earn a living solely doing this, I would in a heartbeat.

In terms of writers, again, too many to list. Though I admire and respect dozens of writers, I draw a lot of  inspiration from simple quotes and music lyrics.

Simone: Many travel writers say that in order to be successful, you need to occupy a niche—cover a specific subject, region, or theme. Do you find yourself doing this?

Lola: It works both ways. If you’re just starting out, you can write for a variety of resources while still building a niche with one or two publications. Or if you happen to find yourself in a region where there isn’t too much coverage, you can definitely leverage that.

For example, I’ve written a lot about Sweden and Stockholm because I live there. One of my print editors knows this and usually approaches me with last minute pieces needed from the region.

To be successful, you need to be good at and confident in what you do and this takes practice, regardless of whether you’re covering a specific subject or writing for a wide array of outlets.

Simone: You do an array of kinds of travel writing – from narratives, to how-tos, to service pieces for magazines. Does the versatility keep travel writing interesting, or do you envision a time when you can focus on one kind of writing?

The versatility definitely keeps it interesting for me. It’s a lot more strategic, though. How-tos and service pieces pay more than narratives which tend to have limited outlets…unless you’re writing a 2,500 word feature narrative for National Geographic or similar, and those types of gigs are usually reserved for industry veterans and writers they’ve developed decade-long relationships with.

As a freelancer, you need to be flexible enough to be able to dabble in various styles.

Simone: Do you any future plans for a book or photography exhibition?

Lola: There are so many half-completed projects and ideas floating around at the moment. As an oil painter, I’ve had many exhibitions in the past.

I’ve got specific portfolios from my photojournalism work in Nigeria, so I plan on exhibiting those in the not too distant future along with other photography.

Simone: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in going into travel writing?

Patience. This is one trait everyone needs to develop. Chances are “success,” however you define it, isn’t going to happen overnight. Be reasonable and practical. Life does come with some responsibilities and if you have them (bills, family, mortgage), you can’t just neglect them for the sake of pursing a dream.

One of my favorite lyrics from U2 says “…what you thought was freedom was just greed.” There’s a very thin line between living your passions and doing it at the expense of your personal responsibilities.

That said, life is definitely too short for you not to live your authentic self so start a steady transition. Be proactive and aggressive in connecting with other writers and editors without being self-serving about it.

Most people can smell a networking rat from miles away.

Here’s a piece I wrote that I usually refer people to who are trying to transition into fulltime freelancing.

If you’re not yet confident in your travel writing skills, I strongly recommend the excellent course offered by MatadorU.  Most of our students and alumni are now working travel writers.

Simone: What do you love best about the life of a travel writer/photographer?

While it may not be the most lucrative career path, the feeling I get from experiential travel and documenting it through writing and photography is deeply fulfilling. I’m only now enjoying the utter flexibility that comes with setting one’s own working schedule.

There’s a certain optimistic realism and down-to-earth vibe that comes from being a photojournalist and traveler. I feel much more connected to and invested in people, their lives, their aspirations, and their dreams, than I ever did when I worked in a cubicle.

And for this, I feel blessed and extremely grateful.

Find out more about Lola Akinmade’s work here,  or follow her on Twitter at @LolaAkinmade. Here’s just a taste of some of her slice-of-life photography from around the world.

Passages, Vows, and Love that’s Lived In

My friends Joe and Kelly Lepain

(Note: Yes, I have finally decided on the right blog template, and it’s not changing. Until I have my own site, anyway. Thank you for your patience with my inane indecision.)

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In the past six weeks, my boyfriend and I traveled miles up and down the east coast, gas station employees’ accents changing as we crossed state lines. Now, after five weeks in the Ontario woods (and a few days in Boston), we have reached the stinking summer streets of New York City. Funny thing is, in that distance we covered, the only moment I really felt like I was making a true, lasting passage was at a friend’s wedding.

I went to a couple of weddings as a kid, but, due to the fact that most of my friends aren’t conventional (or functional) enough to do things like get married, this was my first “adult wedding.” The first where I drank free martinis, danced inappropriately to Shakira, and was asked: “And when will you be tying the knot?” It was the first time the sight of a young woman in a wedding gown made me cry.

Grandparents and diamond advertisements tell us that this will be the stuff of our lives— birthday parties, anniversaries, engagements and honeymoons. I’ve always felt an odd combination of disdain, alienation, and wonder for all of it—wonder at how all of this meant so much to people. After my parents tore their marriage apart, after I was shuffled from one apartment to the next until, at 17, I threw myself into a world that seemed a mess of expectations and disappointments, I watched the ceremonies of people’s lives from a lonely distance. On the other side of a foggy window, I watched as women looked giddy at their engagement rings. I wondered how people took those awful family portraits at Sears and framed them on their bedside table. I wondered how they could hope for so little and so much.

Yes, I was a kid. A kid, it’s painfully obvious, who was scared shit of life. A kid who shaped the dream of her future around adventure and travel, but who wanted, at the root, to understand the meaning of that one-syllable word that everyone else seemed to know so naturally: Home. Home is what I wanted but thought I’d never find in my moving and traveling. So I looked ahead at the uncertain path before me and said: “At least I’m not ordinary.”

But I’ve changed a lot since those days, and I’ve come to understand that there is bravery in the ordinary. At the wedding in Boston I realized that maybe the most important passages we make are not our trips around the world but our rites of passage. Maybe what really sticks with us are these moments, ceremonial or otherwise, when we cross the few important thresholds that mark the maps of our lives.

I’ve come to believe that there’s a kind of grace that exists in life’s commitments that exists nowhere else. And travel, strangely enough, has taught me that. Everywhere, I’ve witnessed different versions of the same ceremonies, witnessed the ways in which people love and know each other. I have learned the pain of goodbyes and joy of reunions.  And all of it has led me to this: I want to marry the man I love, have babies, a home. And I want to fight to keep those things from unraveling. As my boyfriend says, half-cynically, half-sweetly: “What else is there to do?”

What else is there to do. This is the question that used to haunt me, and now brings a smile to my face. Six years ago, my father moved half way across the world; my boyfriend will literally be shipped off to war sometime this year. I live for the moments I have with these people, and the love that deepens through that time. It’s a love I didn’t know all that well growing up, the kind of love not of Neruda poems but of family dinners, of kids’ macaroni art. It’s the love that made the macho groomsmen tear up at my friend’s wedding as his little boy, the ring bearer, escorted his little girl, the flower girl, down the aisle. It’s the love that filled the hall with children’s screams and cries as the couple tried to say their vows, that rendered the groom so nervous and emotional he couldn’t repeat half of what the minister told him to.

I know I sound sentimental as hell. There’s really no poetry for this stuff, “no  vocabulary, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “for love within a family, love that’s lived in but not looked at, love within the light of which all else is seen, the love within which all other love finds speech. That love is silent.”*

There’s certainly no blogging for it either.

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* Kudos to Julie Schwietert for including that great quote in her blog about parenting, 9 mos. And one more photo for fun.

The Inevitable Journey

For the past few weeks, I’ve been out working and living in the Ontario woods, far from the internet. I’ve stopped for a couple days in Toronto to celebrate my birthday, so here’s a post. Hopefully I can get another up soon.

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It is remarkable how travel wakes us up to the world of the past, the geography of our memory. Whether in the chaos of a street in Beijing, or in the quiet of Montana’s mountains, our inner world takes on a kind of stillness when we travel. And in this stillness, we stumble upon surprise moments of the past, landmarks we recognize but never intended to find.

For the past few weeks, I have been out doing forestry and carpentry work in the central Ontario wilderness, living in a little cabin without electricity, plumbing, or running water. It is a kind of routine of its own, but the place and work are completely new to me. The granite that lines the little dirt roads is heavy and grey, nothing like the shining granite of the Sierras I grew up with. The woods are thick with undergrowth, so much denser than the Redwood forests I grew up running through, where nothing grows beneath the incredible heights of the trees. And yet, everyday – waking up to swim the lake outside of my cabin, splitting wood in a meadow, casting the glow of my flashlight over the path to the outhouse—I keep finding myself in different moments of my past.

I have often wondered why we feverishly collect the stories of travel, why it is those particular experiences we seem to value the most. As if it is only then that we are truly living, disoriented and new, vulnerable to raw experience. With all the living we have done—the laundry we’ve washed, the apartments we’ve packed up, the people we’ve hurt, the lusts that have guided and misguided us— it is a wonder we feel a need to search for more experience. We already have so much to mine. But as the days add up, those memories seem not so much landmarks but way stations, and time is the relentless train that takes us further and further away from them. It becomes increasingly difficult, even impossible to find our way back.

For me, it is through travel that I make my way back. I never plan on it, but it always happens. Swimming on the coast of Italy, I find myself in the ocean of my youth, my father carrying me on his shoulders through the waves, going further and further until his head is completely submerged. Today, in the residential back streets of Toronto, I am transported to the winding roads of Berkeley, the beautiful old houses passing outside of the passenger window of my high school boyfriend’s Toyota. And some mornings that I wake in my little cabin in the Ontario wilderness, I am seven years old lying on one of the beds in the rustic resort my grandmother ran in Lake Tahoe, every thing so still and cold and empty feeling, the icicles hanging outside of the window, the sound of my father struggling to start his car, my beautiful grandmother, graceful and slightly terrifying, staring out the window at him  and the bushes capped with white.

These are the things I remember most viscerally, these snapshots that I have to travel so far to find.  They hint at a greater narrative, and my first impulse is to weave one, to anchor those moments in place. But there is something essentially true in those moments that I fear sometimes gets lost in narrative just the way it gets lost in the tumult of our daily lives.

Because narrative is suspiciously powerful. If you’re like me, you cling to certain parts of your own story. Those don’t tend to disappear like other memories, but remain, sometimes growing dangerously large. It is said, often, that we remember more negative than positive, and I’d say this is true in that so much of what I cling to is about loss – the friendship that fell through my fingers, the move away from home, the regrettable end to a long relationship, the man who left me without a word of explanation. We tether ourselves to those losses as some sort of irrational impulse to keep what has already been gone for so long.

But as these past events grow larger, they warp in shape. Over time, memory becomes dream, fantasy, nightmare. It becomes a sort of half-fiction, the narrative that we tell ourselves. And we are trapped by it. For me, as a human being and a writer, these are the most difficult road blocks that I face. On my worst days, they’re so towering that I am utterly lost in their shadows.

And so, I travel to be free. I travel to both remember and forget myself, to forget the narrative that has defined me for so long, to remember the flood of memories, to access the story that is buried beneath the story. In the silence of travel, I hear voices that once called to me, and others that pushed me away. I hear the long story of my life, the one that was always too beautiful, too painful, too absurd to bear. From so many miles away, I can listen to it without judgment, can see it simply as the inevitable journey, the thing we’re always doing, the travel of our life.

The Other Side of the World

The sun was at its highest when my father and I reached the isolated beach. A small woman sat alone on a piece of driftwood, perfecting the mid-day Indonesian art of doing absolutely nothing. She looked as though she had been sitting there her entire life, staring out at the ocean and the volcanoes beyond Bunaken Island.

“Selamat sore, Abigail,” my father said, waving. The woman nodded.

Behind her was the most primitive house I had seen ever seen: Its roof made of thatched palm leaves, its sides of sagging palm bark, the old shack looked as though a castaway had desperately thrown it together, plopping it down amid a tangle of rainforest.

“Is Silas in the ocean?” my dad asked.

The woman nodded again, her eyes smiling this time. I guessed she was Silas’ wife.

Hours ago, we had woken early to go snorkeling, rolling out of our hostel beds and stepping into the soft-lit morning. We had sat with the other travelers in the open-air eating area, picking at our rice and fried eggs.

I felt like I should talk to them. I felt like I should have stayed up late with the flirty Swedish girl, getting drunk and swooning over the tall, blond German as he played guitar. But I was uncomfortable with it all. These young travelers—ambling out into the morning, tan and careless in sarongs—felt more foreign to me than my father’s Indonesian wife.

“After snorkeling, we’ll visit Silas on the other side of the island,” my dad said, putting down his fork.

Three hours later, we ended up here in a small fishing boat a few miles away from the hostel, watching Silas continually emerge from the water and go back down again. Finally, he stood up, dripping in a black shirt.

“I got one!” he yelled. A mess of tentacles dangled from the hook in his hand.

Silas had been out spear-fishing for octopus when my father stumbled on this beach a few years back, and every visit since, this was where my father found him—in the water, searching for these coveted creatures that went for a high price.

He had a penchant for talking like few Indonesians I’d met. While his wife sat beside him, he told us how few octopus were hiding in the coral these days. He talked of his Sunday walks through the rain forest to attend church in the nearby village, about his daughter who had left them to live there. Water, he said, came rushing in their house every time it rained.

My father asked if he ever considered moving into the village.

“I’ve spent my entire life here,” he said plainly, shaking his head. “My father built this house.” Chickens circled around his feet.

I thought of the young travelers back at the hostel, the girls laughing in the hammocks, the boys lining up empty beers. I had come to the other side of the island, but it felt like the other side of the world.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo-HomeAway travel writing competition. You can visit HomeAway Holiday-Rentals here.

Does this piece resonate with you? Have you had experiences like this? I’d love to hear about them!

The Stories that Homes Tell, Real or Imagined

When I was 20 and living in New York City, I dated a man whose mother was a very wealthy art dealer. She owned a vacation home in Long Island, a nineteenth century, wrap around porch house that, more than the short-lived relationship, sticks with me — its slate colored floors, its high ceilings, its antique finishing, its spare, elegant, protestant charm.

We visited it most in autumn, and what I remember vividly about each visit are the bike rides, the shafts of lights coming through all those leaves, the big, old houses moving slowly past us like film stills. And the conversations that ensued:

“It’s quiet here.”

“I know. I like it.”

“Maybe we could leave the city.”

“You think?”

“What about this yellow one?”

“Yeah, I like it.” And I’d smile, knowing that, for me, it was a fantasy. He was older, wanted to settle down, buy a house. I was 20, and imagining –perhaps irresponsibly—what that would be like.

One of my favorite things to do when I’m traveling is look at houses, to walk aimlessly through an anonymous neighborhood, surveying not so much the people in their homes, but the spaces themselves. In my head, I empty them out, ready for fantasy’s taking. Then I arrange a life for myself there.

I admit, it’s a strange activity for a traveler — especially for one who believes that she’ll probably never own a home, who shies away from domestic nesting rituals, and who has never lived in one apartment or house longer than two years.

Or maybe not. I wonder if, in all my travels and moving, that’s what I’m secretly hoping to hit upon — the right house, in the right place, at the right time. Or maybe it is just one aspect of a long-term traveler’s deepest impulse, the impulse to understand what it would be to live in a place, to know its underbelly, its routine, its annoyances, its quirks of character. Part of that, for sure, is about the fantasy — the need to imagine yourself out of the tedium of your own life, the thirst I felt at 20 for the space and freedom my broke, cramped lived in New York couldn’t give me.

But aside from the fantasy is the actual story. What I love about neighborhoods is the quiet histories they tell. I spent a good deal of my recent trip to Newport Beach, CA just walking through neighborhoods, guided by my friend who has spent most of her life there.

There’s an odd, disembodied feeling to being in Southern California — the wide, perfectly paved expressways, the empty sidewalks, the weather’s sameness. Like you’re floating, with eerie ease, atop a mirage of a world.

What makes that feeling even more intense is the strange way the new houses and developments there are trying to trump the unique landscape, trying, with their three-lot-five-house-wide-stucco-imitation-ranch-style-BRIGHT-color -choices to say: Land? What land? Don’t look at those silly palm trees and crystal water. Don’t smell the gardenias that waft through the air everywhere you go. Look at me. Me is what Southern California is all about.

As Nouveau Riche as this all is, this typically Californian in-with-the-new, out-with-the-tasteful tells us more about the history of place than it means to. As it always does. There, sitting next to a modest, pale blue one story, that lot-swallowing monstrosity tells us a lot. Tells us about the way the beach town used to be, and where it’s going. Tells us how the people’s lives, values, and desires have changed. And that little beach house, just built in the 70s actually inspires nostalgia, a hankering for a quieter, more nuanced time that maybe never existed. But it at least creates the vision of history, and the sense of loss that goes along with it.

Maybe it’s just this impulse towards story. The strange need to take details and make them into a narrative, imagined or real. A kind of travel of its own.


About Simone Gorrindo

Simone Gorrindo is a freelance journalist, poet, and travel writer who can't stay put.

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