Table of Contents    |    Chapter Six    |  |    Chapter Eight

The Daily Grind
A Cyc-o-path Loose in South America
A Motivational Book About Cycle Touring Through South America

A Book by Ranger Bob Bob Lutsky

"At the birth of our soul, a net is thrown over it to keep us from flying.
Talk to me of religion, language or nationality, I hope to fly by those nets" - James Joyce

Chapter Seven

Torres Del Paine National Park

Traveling develops your intuition and instinct and sharpens your sense of resourcefulness. I've come to understand that we live in a manner that is consistent with our beliefs. Whatever is going on in our minds is bound to come into reality. I don't have any doubts about making it to Ecuador by bicycle. Just like you don't have any doubts about making it to work or to the store when you leave the house. As a matter of fact you probably don't even think about it, because you have a great deal of confidence that you will get there. Personally I feel its important to have that same degree of confidence in everything we set out to do in life.

About 10 miles before Puerto Natales I met a road engineer who was surveying the area. He spoke with a strong Scottish accent, yet he assures me he has never left Chile. He told me his parents were from Scotland but moved here before he was born. Ian speaks both English and Spanish fluently and despite living in southern Chile for 45 years, has never lost his accent. He invited me to sit in his truck to have a break from the incessant 40 MPH wind. This brief respite was just what I needed to recharge the batteries for the last push into the city.

Arriving in Puerto Natales just after dark, I went to the Lago Pingo hotel which was unfortunately full. They said to return tomorrow at noon and they would have a room. The Lago Pingo was the first contact point to leave messages for Stuart and Uve. So far neither one has been here yet. So I went to another hotel which much to my surprise was also full. I politely told the owner how tired and desperate I was and that I would be willing to sleep anywhere. They said for half price they would clean out a closet storage space for me if I didn't mind not having a light or enough space to stand up. I said are you kidding, that's perfect I'll take it! I prefer the floor to a bed anyway and the saving in cost will pay for a dinner in the restaurant.

The next day I moved to the Lago Pingo hotel and spent 3 days doing laundry, writing letters, basic bike repair and catching up on some rest. Rest what is rest? The first day I spent engaged in an upper body workout washing heavily soiled clothes by hand, physically wringing and rinsing each item separately. Then strategically hanging everything up around the wood stove to dry. Oh how I long for a washing machine. They have a laundry service for 4 dollars but who has that kind of money? Actually I prefer to do it myself, that way there is no chance of lost or damaged items. The second day was spent giving the bike a good scrub down, cleaning the chain, and truing the wheels. The third day I spent shopping, exploring the town, researching the hiking possibilities and planning the food requirements for the next two weeks. The past 3 days have been harder than cycling days. On the fourth day with still no sign of my friends, I finally take a day off to really rest, read and relax! AAAAAHHHH!!

My day off was spent reading all about my next adventure. Torres Del Paine national park, the biggest tourist attraction in southern Chile. Before leaving Puerto Natales I'll need about 12 days supply of food and stove fuel. After 2 trips to the various markets, I added about 30 pounds of food and 7 pounds of water to my already over burdened bicycle. I require about 4-6 liters of water per day for drinking cooking and tea, but between passing vehicles, estancias and rivers finding water is never a problem.

At the hotel I met a really nice couple from Holland who were very interested in my trip. They even offered me their water purification tablets, something I would need as I progressed further north. Rick told me they wouldn't use all they brought and that he would leave them at his hotel in Santiago, for me to pick up when I got there. That night we exchanged half a night's sleep for great conversation about our experiences in south America. The following morning we both left for the park. Rick and his wife took the bus and I on the bike. They seemed confident that we'd meet again, but I thought to my self it's a big park with almost no facilities, what are the chances?

It was 65 miles to the park over good gravel road with moderately strong west northwest winds. The first night I camped behind the customs post, the official border with Argentina. All of the park lies within Chile, but since I have to return to this spot later, I left half my food, and most of my books with the border guard. They all seemed enthusiastic about this opportunity to help out a crazy gringo traveler.

The approach to the park was unforgettable, I can't imagine going to the park via any other means except bicycle. In talking with other cyclists all seem to agree that Patagonia is an absolutely beautiful place to travel. Ironically people traveling by bus all seem to agree Patagonia is a very boring place to travel, except for the tourist sites and parks etc. I found this very interesting. When you ask about a place you want to visit, always take into account who you are asking.

The huge towers (called Torres in Spanish ) of granite, rise straight up to to over 3000 feet. The tallest called Cerro Paine Grande came into view about 3 hours before I entered the park. These 3 granite basalt pillars appeared to keep getting larger as I got closer, and acted as my compass, guiding me into this illusionary fantasyland.

En route, I passed several travelers hitchhiking to save the 10 dollar bus fare. A 'real traveler' will stand on the side of the road all day, even if its only raining to save 5 bucks. They said they were getting lifts every 2-3 hours, but they were short lifts, usually by locals. However they all made it from Puerto Natales to the park in one day taking anywhere from 4-6 hours to do the 2 hour trip. Hitching down here is fantastic, if you don't mind long waits. The traffic is very light, the air is clean, it's safe, peaceful. If your not in a hurry its the second best way to travel. Remember that in traveling there is no there, it's the getting there that makes up our trip. There is no way to happiness, happiness itself is the way.

As I got nearer and nearer to the park condors and guanacos became more numerous. Traveling by bike allows you to get very close to these unusual creatures. I'm cycling along and I hear this soft light wooosh sound. For a second I thought a space ship was just over my head, a brief moment of fear ran through my mind, a feeling like I was about to be attacked. So I turned to look up and almost fell off the bike. I thought is was an airplane or glider plane at first, but not more than 10 feet above my head was the biggest bird I've ever seen in my life. The Andean Condor with a 9 foot wing span was checking me out. Hope he doesn't take a dump about now. I was actually feeling a bit vulnerable since he is bigger than me and those talons could probably take a chunk out of my head if he was angry or threatened. In the air they are graceful and majestic, soaring effortlessly for hours at a time, riding the updrafts of the wind. He swooped down in front of me to about eye level before banking his wings to catch the wind lifting him rapidly to safer heights. Apparently he was happy with his observation and content that I was no threat to him. I'm sure he was anxious to return to the nest to tell the kids about this strange, ugly yellow creature with a yellow head moving very slowly on an unusual two wheel device. Speaking of which, when these birds are on the ground they look very unsightly, similar to vultures or buzzards. I guess that's why they spend most of the day in the air.

Further down the road my progress was brought to halt by 26 guanacos on the road. These llama like creatures with short brownish yellow fur were not at all alarmed by my presence even though I was no more than 3 feet from them. They all stopped what they were doing and in a frozen like trance just stared at me. Slowly they began to look at each other as if to say I hope he doesn't expect us to move. We were here first. This is our home not his, besides there's more of us and we're bigger than he is. Even if we are the same color you get no special privileges. I tried to get even closer, as if three feet isn't close enough. They appeared not to be afraid of me but just to be on the safe side, countered my advancement by moving an equal distance away. I pulled out a long sharp knife and attacked them. Just kidding! I thought to myself what a great chance for observation. I slowly walked over to the side of the road, then to about 10 feet off the road, laid down my bicycle and sat peacefully. For the next two hours I just watched as they played, ate grass and chased each other. They have long necks like a giraffe and they rap their heads and necks around each other pulling and wrestling. Every once in awhile knocking each other to the ground. Throughout this time they stayed in my vicinity constantly looking my way, sometimes for extended periods of time. Someone was always keeping an eye out for a possible invasion, by me or a puma their primary predator. This whole time I felt like I was on assignment for a national geographic video. After about 2 hours a fast moving car came zipping around the corner. This time I'm sure they thought "this thing is bigger and faster than we are so we better move", and in unison they all scampered off into the hills. Wow - a live version of National Geographic. I thought to myself, if they just loaned me a camera for my trip I could have given them hours of footage of guanacos, condors, puma, active volcanoes, 25 foot waves crashing on the rocks and glaciers calving, all for the cost of the film. I wonder what their budget is for a 2 hour special?

Next an excitement of a different nature cropped up. Shortly after my live on-assignment, observation ended, I cycled on, and just after cresting a hill my eyes cast upon, perhaps the most turquoise blue lake I've ever seen. It would surely rival any Caribbean setting for its beauty. The background was a yellowish desert landscape with pampas grass and snow capped glacier peaks. To change any aspect of this priceless portrait would diminish its splendor. I cycled down the hill, left my bike by the road, and set out on foot to the waters edge. The water was very salty and the floor of the lake was a soft white marshmallow-like clay. It could easily support my weight, but as I looked to my left totally out of place was a black jeep set against the white beach sunk up to its floor boards. As I went over to talk to the unfortunate occupants , they were quite worried, for it appears the jeep is still sinking. Imagine trying to explain to the rental agency that the whole thing was just swallowed up by the earth. VOOM! I asked the two couples from Buenos Aires why they drove down here? They said they had rented the jeep to go off road. I told them that this road is off road, and that they were 'off off' road and in a few minutes might just add a new dimension to the term off road. I asked them if they noticed the ground getting softer as they drove closer to the water. Apparently, they thought that if they went fast enough they would make it through. I looked at the jeep as it sank a little deeper and said I guess not. I told them that it should take me about an hour to get to the park headquarters to inform the rangers of their predicament.

About 30 minutes later the setting sun illuminated the 3 Torres a brilliant red and patches of white fog swirled around the tops. Sometimes I'm glad to not have a camera. I can fully enjoy the moment instead of always using mental energy to deiced whether to take a photo or not or if the color is right. Other travelers look at me strangely when I say I don't have a camera but I almost never regret it. I'm a true minimalist. When I got to the park entrance I informed the Ranger about the jeep back at Lago Amargo (bitter lake), and set off to find a place to camp for the night. For the first night I cycled up the hill and found a place off the road where no-one would see me. It's illegal to camp outside campgrounds, but it's too late to get to the nearest one tonight.

In the morning I spread out all my maps and tried to figure out where to go first. It would take days to cycle all over the park. The roads in the park are unpaved consisting of loose gravel and the terrain is very hilly. If Turquoise blue lakes, glaciers, waterfalls, fishing, hiking or climbing is your thing, than Torres Del Paine National Park is not to be missed.

It seems in the park as well as throughout Patagonia that everything is much further away and takes a lot longer to get to than you imagine. Because of this, it's my opinion that a traveler to this part of the world is much better off with 9 months of time and limited amounts of money than limited to only one month with unlimited amounts of money. Time is your greatest asset.

It's just before dawn on my first morning in the park after a surprisingly calm night. I pack up all my stuff and try not to attract any attention to my illicit camping spot. Because its early I managed to cycle down the road unnoticed.

When you leave home its a good idea to have a rough sketch of a plan but the most effective method is to plan as you go. Once you arrive down here you learn so many things you didn't at home. To stick to a strict schedule would be to miss out on all the spontaneous possibilities.

I rode down the hill, across an iron bridge and along the clear fast flowing river where I met Diane from Ottawa, Canada's capital city. She just spent 5 days hiking in the park, so I had quite a few questions to ask her. It turns out she is also cycling but left her bike in Puerto Natales. When she returns will be heading south. She has plans to cycle Africa, so we swap E-mail addresses, and will keep in touch. She is in a hurry to get back to catch the bus which only runs once a day, so sadly we part company. I take the whole day to cycle to the campground passing only a few other hikers. Jay, who I met just after meeting Diane, is from British Columbia also in Canada. He gave my ego a real boost, by saying how impressive it was to cycle down here with these rough roads and high winds. I thanked him for his confidence and encouragement and we swapped addresses before he too hurried off to catch the bus. As I go into the campground and set up my tent, who do I see? None other than The Dutch couple whom I met in Puerto Natales. I couldn't believe it. They just finished a hike up the valley Ascencio, the most famous hike in the park. It was good to see a familiar face. We made plans to get together for dinner and I set off to get familiar with the area.

I went into the hostel, which is only for those with great financial resources and little time, to get some information on weather and various hikes. On the verandah out front I noticed a bedraggled group of 5 British guys. They had just completed the 5 day circuit hike which goes all the way around the Torres. Its up and down and very steep in places. They said it was necessary to cross many streams ensuring that your feet are always wet. I also noticed that there was a lot of limping going on. Based on the state they were in, I decided to take a pass on the circuit hike even though they all said how great it was. My knees enjoy cycling but they are not especially happy with hiking steep hills carrying a heavy pack. They were all amazed that I was cycling down here, but for me it would be harder to sit on a bus all day than a bicycle seat.

I went back to the tent to start dinner and meet up with Rick and his wife. Over dinner, they asked me what I thought about them taking a 10 hour bus ride each way to see the Pierto Moreno glacier for only 2 hours. I thought to myself so this is how the other half lives. I said it was a pity they didn't have more time but on the other hand from what I understand it shouldn't be missed. After about 2 hours of eating, drinking and chatting, a light rain started to fall and the temperature dropped to about 35 degrees. This was enough motivation to encourage us all to retire early to our tents.

In the morning they set off on a 5 day hike to the Gray glacier and I out for a long day hike up the valley Acencio to the base of the Torres. The hike was easy except for the last part which was up very steep boulders. At the top was a glacier feeding into and icy cold lake.

The rain the night before left the Torres and surrounding mountains blanketed in with a fresh snowfall adding to the already post card perfect setting. Distances can be very misleading in the mountains, we met some hikers that just returned from the glacier on the other side of the lake. To me it looked like an hour and a half hike and a 15 foot tall glacier but these guys informed me that it took 6 hours to hike around the lake and the glacier was over 80 feet in height. So much for my minor in geography at university. In what seemed like just a few minutes a swirl of clouds engulfed the Torres and a light snow started to fall (is this really the middle of summer?). From where I stood, the view of the glacial lake with the three snow covered towers pasted over the evergreen background was as close to a stereotypical image of heaven as I could imagine. If you look carefully you could even see angels in the clouds. All I need is a can of ice cold Old Milwaukee because it just doesn't get any better than this. It's hard to believe that this is the most visited National Park in Chile yet it only has 51000 visitors a year. Tourists pour into the Grand Canyon and Yosemite by the millions. And to think only about 1% of the 51000 actually hike up to this lake.

The weather is starting to close in so it's time to head down. Several hikers carried food and camping gear with plans to spend the night up here. I thought about bringing all my gear, but after a consultation with my knees I decided it would be better to do the climb as light as possible and settled for stuffing my pockets with a snack. On the way down I met Jamie from Santiago and we hiked together down to the refugio. When we got there I was surprised to find a restaurant. They only had one thing on the menu: fish, for 11 dollars. Jamie cringed at the price but went for it anyway. While he waited for his hot fish dinner, I asked the waiter for a plate and opened my can of fish. I poured three headless bodies and tomato sauce onto my plate and sliced up an apple to go with it. Jamie looked at my plate and made a very humorous sour face, reminiscent of Mr. Bean drinking a cup of fabric softener. I happily started eating and shortly thereafter he saw the waiter coming over with his dinner. Jamie looked at me smugly and smiled, but when his 11 dollar dinner was laid in front of him I almost fell off the chair in hysterics. It's been a long time since I had such a deep rib tearing laugh. He was served the exact same thing as I had only his was heated up with a small serving of rice and no apple. Because it was only 35 degrees in the place, after 2 bites, his too was stone cold and tasted exactly the same. Later on he added that because of his disappointment, his 11 dollar piece of fish didn't digest as well as my 99 cent piece of fish, I told him at least you didn't have to carry it all day, he said what a plus.

We went back down to the campground together and built a fire. I told Jamie that as a follow up to the gourmet cena (Spanish for dinner) I would make some smores (marshmallow, Swiss chocolate and graham crackers). Who said travelers rough it? I also shared my last bottle of wine. I aim to lighten the load as much as possible before setting out on the next leg of the trip. Besides I really enjoyed his company and his intellectual insight, and I wanted to create a nice memory with a new found friend. Also the next stretch of the trip is a lonely one. I expect long stretches of desolation and pampas. That is the real Patagonia and the start of the infamous ruta curenta (route 40), a 3000 plus mile stretch of isolated road that runs from here northward to the Bolivian boarder.

We talked for a while about some of the problems out planet faces, and our conclusion was that the world isn't right or wrong, it just is. The world is always unfolding according to god's plan. But of all the things we seek in life and all the successes we chase, there is no greater joy than true love. To love and be loved that's what's important. I believe this fully and completely. I have been blessed several times with true love, but foolishly I've always traded it for the freedom to travel. I suppose that's the real cost of my long trips. Other travelers ask me how can you afford to travel for so long, and I guess the answer is I trade true love, companionship and possessions for travel. Financially it costs very little to travel, I can finance my whole trip with one months wages. The price is low, the cost is very high.

I met Jamie again in the morning for breakfast. He is such a nice man. He is working as an engineer in Santiago. He gave me his address and said I should look him up when I get there. I can't believe its the end of January already and the days are getting shorter, which means less miles per day. A few more hikes and a day of cycling around the park and its time to head northward.

I spent the next couple of days hiking along the front of the Torres until I came to a shimmering glacier. It looked as big as a city, about 2 miles across and it stretched as far as the eye could see left or right. Most people who have visited this park say that it was uniquely one of the most interesting parks they've ever visited. I don't think a country can have too many protected areas. In Chile all the parks are administered by an organization called Conaf. In the United States all the parks are under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. Why would an organization that handles everything outside be called the department of the Interior?

I camped near the glacier but the ground was very wet and there were quite a few other hikers in the campground. As much as I love hiking, I'm anxious to get back on the bicycle. My last day in the park I just spent cycling along the roads. Despite the beauty of this place there is very little traffic. I just have enough food to make it to the next town which is El Calafate, so first thing in the morning I sadly departed.

As I passed lake Amargo, I had to smile as I saw the deep tracks in the white clay where the jeep was stuck. Surprisingly only the surface of the clay was white and deeper down it was very dark black. Wonder if there's oil in them there hills? They should start drilling at once! Who needs all this wildlife stuff when there's profit to be made. Just kidding!

Cycling south southeast, with the persistent west-north-west wind, I made it all the way back to the border where I had camped on the way in. I retrieved the rest of my food and books at the customs post and was greeted with mate and a sandwich. They later told me to visit the little town that was just on the other side of that wall. They pointed to a 15 foot wooden fence about 200 yards across the field. The town of about 20 people was down in a hollow not visible from the post. The wall was obviously built to block the incessant gale force winds. In this town, there were about 8 houses and a hospital which only had one table and one full-time nurse on duty. I doubt if they even had a stethoscope. I went inside to check it out and the nurse invited me in for coffee. After about an hour, I noticed it was getting dark and I asked her if I could set up my tent on the grass, behind the building and out of the wind. She said "sure but wouldn't you be more comfortable in my bed" - well at least in my dreams that's what she said. What she really did was redirect me to the empty wood shed which was a much better shelter. There were even several small little crawly things on the ground to keep me company for the night. They were not of concern for my area of vulnerability is my food supply and my biggest predator is dogs.

Although being a big lover of dogs, they are my biggest enemy while traveling. They bark, bite and chase you while you cycle, pulling at your leg and creating a potentially dangerous situation. At night, they steal all your food. I found I had to be more meticulous with my food in South America to protect it from dogs than I did in Alaska from the bears. Before going to sleep I secured my groceries up in the rafters of the wood shed.

At about 7:00 am a five year old appeared with a small piece of cake, a large cup of coffee and the cutest smile I've ever seen. It was totally unexpected and the most perfect wake up call you could wish for on such a frosty morning. I tried to find out where it all came from, so I followed him back to a museum next door. I was amazed to find a museum in a town of only 20 people. They had a hospital and a museum but no post office or store of any kind. Apparently the museum was for tourists and the hospital was more of an emergency outpost for the park.

The boy's mother worked in the museum and had heard that there was a gringo camping out in the woodshed. She had made a comment about how few people come to visit the museum. I think she sent the coffee out as a bribe to try to lure me in to visit! The museum contained a stuffed specimen of every animal in the area, many of which I had never seen before. The Puma impressed me the most with enormous paws and it appeared to have unusual strength based on the size of it's legs compared to the rest of its body. I'm not sure if I wanted to run into one of these or not!

Armed with more cookies and coffee, the curator lead me into a room which contained a VCR, TV and a stack of videos. I was anxious to continue cycling but the woman was so nice, I couldn't say no to her invitation and in retrospect, I'm really glad that I took the time to explore the videos. The first video was a national geographic production about one man who spent two years living in a tent in the mountains of Torres Del Paine national park studying and filming the puma. He had spent over two weeks in one spot staring all day right at the place where he had found tracks before he even saw his first puma. He said it took about 3 months for her to trust him. He would spend a large part of every day and night filming (because pumas hunt at night). Imagine the patience and persistence it takes to sit there for two years waiting and watching an animal that doesn't even move much. The man in this film, Hugh Miles, reminded me of Farley Mowat, who wrote " Never Cry Wolf". I was reading this book at the time and it's one that I highly recommend because it offers great insight into the life and living habits of the wolf and enlightens the reader on how we erroneously fear wildlife and often act on false information. Farley Mowat did the same thing Hugh Miles did, spending a few years studying the behavior of these benign animals in their natural settings. At one time, Farley Mowat was banned from the US because of a political comment he made about the US government which says to me that he must be a very fine, kind and caring human being.

Another video was on the history of the park and contained some spectacular Arial views that I hadn't seen on my visit. Before I left, I thanked the woman very much for all of her kindness and asked her why there wasn't a sign out on the road to direct people to the museum and why it wasn't in the guide book. I thought a lot of people would be really interested in visiting, but she didn't have an answer for me. I have come to learn that in South America, WHY isn't important. As I left, I thought to myself how glad I was to have visited this museum and this little town behind the wall.

It was time to head back into Argentina again so I cycled up to the Chilean customs post to get my exit stamp. I was ecstatic to find that I was heading due East with the wind on my back! The road was composed of gravel and dirt but for the most part in good shape. Again, there was a long stretch of land where I was in no-man's land - out of one country but not yet in the other. About two miles from the border I met 4 people traveling by bicycle, all from Argentina heading into Chile. Instantly, we were like long lost friends with the instant attraction that comes from the respect for each other because we all deal with exactly the same obstacles and conditions. It's fascinating how most people traveling long distances by bicycle have very similar stories and ideas about life, politics and an appreciation for nature. We are all bonded with the feeling of not being understood by those back home. It's sad that those that we love the most seem to have the least understanding or respect for what we are doing. I guess that's because most of the things we learn while on the road can only be learned on the road and therefore not easily communicated to those that have never experienced it.

They said that they had a lot of rain on the Carreterra Austral and also in the lake district. I guess it's all in the timing for when I got there it was very dry and the lack of rain was a concern. I looked at there tires which appeared to be really chewed up, and come to think of it, so did they. They also commented on the fact that the road ahead of me is really bad with an unbelievable wind and it was a bad idea to even THINK about camping in those conditions. It occurred to me that in a few months, I would be looking as tired as they were and I thought at least that was something to look forward to. As we talked, I looked around and was amazed at how dry the landscape had become since I left the national park and yet I had only traveled about 20 miles. The west side of the Andes averages 240 inches of precipitation a year and here on the east side of the hills, the average was less than 10 inches a year. Also the constant dry wind contributes to rapid evaporation. Not much was able to grow here in these conditions.

The Argentinean cyclists had as many questions for me as I had for them. Fortunately for all of us two of them spoke English. I told them about the park and the museum and comforted them with the knowledge that the wind, although it didn't let up, would become more of a friend than an adversary as they moved westward. Just before we parted, they told me that if I was low on vegetables, I could pick up the carrots they had left behind on the other side of the border because they weren't allowed to bring them across. I cycled off into the South Dakota landscape and eventually came upon the customs post and the carrots.

It's a 300 mile stretch of nothing to El Calafate, the next town which lies on the south shore of Lago Argentina. This baby blue lake is 70 miles long and 20 miles wide with a glacier at the far end. The town is the starting off point for trips to Parc Nationale Los Glaciers. This park is the home of the world famous Pierito Moreno glacier, possibly the second-most spectacular sight in all of South America, after Iguasu falls. There is no road access between Southern Chile, Torres Del Paine and the rest of Chile without going through Argentina. There is a road north from Torres del Paine to El Calafate but from what I heard from two Japanese cyclists who did it, the road becomes very rough with long sections of NO road at all which means you'd have to carry your bicycle and shuttle your gear. They said the distance is short, but very difficult and takes about the same amount of time to cycle around on the official road. The deciding factor for me was that there are no customs posts and the last thing I needed was problems with the police. It's no fun to be caught in a country without an entry stamp. To go further north in Chile would require crossing the Campos de Hielo which is a snow and ice field that stretches out for 250 miles. This snow field yields dozens of enormous glaciers but only a few are accessible by road. This huge snow field presents an impenetrable barrier therefore it will never be possible to connect all of Chile by road. Hopefully that will be enough motivation to maintain really good neighborly relations with Argentina.

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