ISP

This post was supposed to go up about a month ago, when I was really just beginning ISP. Lack of real Internet stopped me from doing so. Here are my thoughts from late November: 

The last month of my study abroad program is spent on ISP – Independent Study Project. It’s supposed to be a test of our skills at navigating India – we are sent off all across the country to study our chosen topic. I’m doing a practical study of dhrupad classical Indian music. It’s hard to describe, but it’s pretty cool stuff – it’s all about pitch and resonance and focus. I’ve found a place at a gurukul on the outskirts of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, where I’m living, eating and singing with my fellow students, and learning in class each day from dhrupad professionals, actual masters! It’s a pretty incredible opportunity. Here’s a little about the beginning of my ISP:

I took a train from Delhi to get to Bhopal, and while I had previously been told a taxi could pick me up and drive me to the gurukul, I didn’t see it. I discovered later that when I’d tried to confirm the taxi, I’d missed an email saying to call the driver and arrange with him. So I spent a while at the train station in Bhopal, the only white person and the only woman alone, calling 4 different numbers I had and only getting a response from one. That one was a woman who had no idea who I was, couldn’t understand my accent, and after my 3rd call to her, sent me off with one of the phone numbers I already had. She was the only one picking up though, so I called a 4th time and just said “I’m at the train station what do I do?” and she gave me the directions to tell a rickshaw. I’ve been here a week and have not met her/am still not sure who is this mysterious woman whose Thursday afternoon I wasted. Of course there’s more: the rickshaw had trouble finding the place. It’s on the very edge of the city, essentially in the countryside, surrounded by farm land. I was able to get to the village nearby, but had to ask around a lot and drive through some random country back roads before arriving – to a place I wasn’t even sure was expecting me. It was quite a relief when I walked in to see a foreign  man painting, who said the guy who’d been emailing me and dealing with all that wasn’t there, but someone would know where to put me. The cook settled me in with a temporary roommate until a room vacated the next day.

That first afternoon was strange. Because the guru jis weren’t around, not many people were here. So I wandered around this idyllic empty countryside building, went to the roof and watched the sunset, and listened to the soothing flute being practiced by my roommate, who informed me that everyone here wakes up at 5 am to practice, then does sunrise yoga. Quite the place.

Despite a few valiant efforts, I have never woken up at 5 am while here, and I’ve discovered that luckily not everyone does. I’ve still been getting up around 7 regularly, going to bed around 9:30. A strange life.

Apart from sleep, my life here consists of music practice in my room, writing my ISP, procrastinating my ISP, class, group practice sessions, playing the Whale Trail app game on my phone, practicing in the gurukul building next door, eating 3 Indian meals a day, and the occasional walk to the village about 10 minutes away to buy fruit and other snacks. Today is the first day I’ve ventured into town, to the New Market to find internet.

The first few days here were pretty isolating, with no internet and very few people around, but since then I’ve come to terms with not checking Facebook every few minutes (when I just logged on I had over 90 notifications), and have some growing friendships with my fellow students, including my Indian roommate, Nirupama! I’ve also had a lot of time to think, and it’s been pretty refreshing/detoxing to just focus on what’s going on here, work on my project, and have time away from the chaos of a city.

I am here until December 10th, when I’ll have wifi again, so I’ll probably have more to say then! 

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I do indeed have more to say but it’s almost too much!  I was actually at the music school until December 13th, then headed back to Delhi for a final week of nostalgia and academic frenzy. Difficult to put things into words but I’m working on writing up one or two final blog posts.

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Let Me Sum Up

let me sum up

After our first month or so of study in Delhi, our schedule is interrupted by two extended trips – one an educational excursion across North India, and the other a “workshop” in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. We just returned from workshop and I thought it might be time to update the world on a few places I’ve been in the past month.

Delhi Domestic Airport – The 5 am start to our journeys. A coffee and snack break before boarding the flight.

Bhubaneswar – City in the East Indian state of Orissa, home to several important examples of Hindu architecture. Quite humid. Temples in beehive structure, getting more elaborate the later they were built. Fancy hotel with a glass-walled elevator that gave me a little vertigo. Delicious hotel buffet. Stop for chai between temples. Felt like there was more space than Delhi.

Dhauli – Region near Bhubaneswar that’s home to an Ashokan Edict, Buddhist writing carved into rocks from 200 BCE. Very old, very cool. We climbed the steps up to the very hot stupa to see the same view as Emperor Ashoka. Chai break. Velvety flowers.

Puri – Home to the Jagannath temple, an important Hindu pilgrimage site. Couldn’t go inside but we accidentally walked around the entire perimeter trying to find a roof from which to see it from above. Took some cycle rickshaws to get there. Chai break. There was a beach but we didn’t go. Swam in the pool! Had a room to myself. Soporific Hindi class in the unairconditioned porch area. Konark sun temple.

Kolkata – The original capitol of the British Raj in India. The overnight train got us there. Home to British monuments and other oddities like the marble palace. A bird park where we learned Savita-ji’s great love for birds. Walked to the incredibly crowded New Market! Hawkers followed us the entire time we were there trying to get us to come back to their store. Old-fashioned yellow taxis were more common than auto rickshaws. Chai and pastry break at Flury’s. Oxford bookstore on Park Street. Ordered Chinese food in and had a little slumber party at the hotel. Such a different vibe from Delhi. Refreshing.

Bodhgaya – Site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Meditated under a tree descended from the tree he found enlightenment under. Devoured The Goldfinch novel, purchased in Kolkata. Visited other Buddhist temples – Japanese temple made me think of home even though I’ve barely lived there! Upcoming election was heightening political tensions, so we left quickly.

Varanasi – Touted as the oldest city in India. A riverside city that’s holy to many religions and is an important cremation site. Sunrise, sunset, daytime boat rides. Chai break on the river. Sari shopping at the main market with Savita-ji. Beautiful textiles! Ram Lila, a religious theatrical performance like nothing I’ve ever seen. Chai break. Home-cooked meals at the guest house. Hindi class at the lunch table. Cold coffee at the cafe.

Sarnath – Site of the Buddha’s first lecture, an impressive stupa, and a museum. Ice cream break!

CR Park – The Bengali neighbourhood in Delhi where I live, which transformed into a giant carnival during the Durga Puja holiday! Ice cream carts every 5 feet. Huge temple complexes with bouncehouses and mainstages and temporary restaurants. The constant clanging of bells in worship. Beautifully crafted icons. Durga slaying the buffalo demon.

AIIS Library – The extensive library at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Gurgaon just outside of Delhi, where I did research for my upcoming month-long independent study of Indian classical music. Bag lunch. Very old books. A cozy library study spot.

Mamilapuram – Seaside town home to several important temples, where we got a taste of the beginning of monsoon season at a fun hotel dinner. Walks along the beach, dead jellyfish and seashells. Pure humidity. Coffee breaks, aggressive vendors. Coconut drinking. Fun with Arjun-ji. Henna by renowned artist Sarah Prickett and a movie night in the hotel.

Pondicherry – French colonial town on the Bay of Bengal. Left to our own devices and told to find several sites. We walked almost the entire length of the city. Sacred Heart Basilica, Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Sitting on the rocky beach. Blessed by an elephant at the Ganesha temple. Delicious Italian dinner at the French restaurant Le Club, chilling with Arjun-ji. Almost a Carribean vibe?

Taxi – Vehicle that transported us everywhere across South and North India. Depending on who you were sitting with that day, could be quiet and sleepy, talkative, musical, or quiet and sleepy. Coffee/samosa breaks all the time.

Gangaikondacholapuram – Long name of a town with a Shaiva temple. Hi!

Thanjavur – Home to the Big Temple. Writing carved into the base all around, huge elaborate carvings on the temple and the gates. They used a huge ramp to put the capstone on the top, evidenced by End-of-the-ramp village 6 kilometers away. Also home to the nicest resort we’ve been to, with wifi speeds faster than I’ve seen in months. Chilling in the pool, movie night in Elena and I’s room. A pretty cushy way to experience India.

Trichy – Really impressive, elaborate painted temple. We had to do our own thing and hire a guide, which was fairly successful. Coffee break. Stipend dinner, so we ordered a pizza and had a scary movie night to prepare for Halloween. Lower fort temple the next morning, climbed a lot of stairs. The stairs and the view took our breath away (joke cred to Elena).

Madurai – Home to the Meenakshi temple, a huge complex. Bronze museum inside. Fruit juice break. Roof-top dinner with way too much food. The site of our last-minute Halloween – created costumes with whatever we had on hand, Elena did our makeup. Ghost stories in the dark. Screams.

Chennai – Saw the Chennai museum, including some pretty cool bronzes and super old coins. The most impressive buffet I’ve seen, all kinds of Indian food and a dessert spread with a chocolate fountain. Another stipend dinner, another hotel slumber party.

GK II Starbucks, Delhi – After all this travelling, coming back to Delhi really has felt a little bit like coming home – familiar food and faces. People speak Hindi here (not the case in South India!), which I at least know a little bit of. A home-cooked meal. A familiar coffee. Back to the grind (coffee and schedule-wise).

As is evident, we had a lot of time in hotels and nice restaurants, and experienced India in a pretty (rich) touristy way. I wish we had time to really explore these places in the way we have Delhi, but when you’re travelling from site to site you really are an (exhausted) tourist. SIT paid for everything, and it was a waaay fancier a trip than I would’ve gone on on my own, so I’ve been trying to acknowledge and think about the ways that I’ve been interacting with the people and places I’ve been, how my privilege has shaped the experience, and what I can do better to appreciate and participate when appropriate, but not take. As always, I’m so so grateful that this program has allowed me to see so much of India (without the stress of planning it – thanks Arjun-ji!). Just a few more days of classes really before we start our independent study projects – I’ll hopefully have another post about that at a later date!

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Get Outta Town!

While studying in New Delhi is its own adventure, my classmates and I also have the opportunity to travel outside of Delhi to places all around India, both with the program and on our own. We’ve gone to Agra and Rishikesh so far, which have been two amazing but very different experiences, and Friday we leave for a 9-day excursion across North India.

The most important thing I’ve noticed about places outside Delhi is there are waaaay more cows. Delhi has plenty of cows roaming the streets, but nothing compared to the cow hordes I’ve seen elsewhere. Not to mention camels.

Last weekend, the program took us to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal (along with other incredible monuments and pieces of history that are often overshadowed by the Taj).

It was ok I guess.

It was breathtaking, awe-inspiring, everything the pictures seem to be and more.

We also saw Fatehpur Sikri, a whole complex/city built by the Mughal emperor Akbar, and went to Agra Fort. These sites were all super beautiful and interesting on their own, but the experience was definitely enhanced by the presence of Harini-ji, a guest professor of sorts, who provided historical anecdotes, good company, and a vast knowledge of Mughal history. I’m becoming increasingly grateful that I am able to experience this country through living and studying here and actually coming to understand the importance of the pieces of culture I’m witnessing.

Friday was Gandhi-ji’s birthday, a national holiday, so we had a 3-day weekend. My classmates and I decided to organise a trip to Rishikesh, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas. We rented some taxis for the weekend, booked a hotel, and were on our way.

We figured it would be amazing to get out of the city and up into the mountains (it was). We figured it  would be nice to get out from under the program’s wing and explore on our own (it was.) What we couldn’t have predicted was having one of the best days of our lives!

Words won’t do it justice, but it started with a sunrise viewing from a mountaintop temple. It then went on to include a trek through rice fields and goat farms; a swim in a private little part of a stream, which we were led to by our amazing guide; a late lunch at Chotiwala back in Rishikesh; an impromptu mass play date with some street children who we shared food with; a relaxing time on the beach of the Ganga River; witnessing a man be saved from drowning in the Ganga River; initiation into a dog pack; incredible Oreo milkshakes; and just being constantly in awe that we were there. At the end of the day, we headed to a loft restaurant advertising live music. It turned out to be more of an open mic jam session, so a few of us performed (I sang), and we all befriended some of the workers and musicians. We walked back to the hotel marveling at the huge moon hanging over the Himalayas, reflecting off the holy Ganga River.

I’m not even a third of the way through my time here in India. Of course it hasn’t all been fun and games (the drive home from Rishikesh last night took almost 10 hours because of traffic, flat tires, and getting lost, among other things), but right now I’m feeling so lucky, inspired, and excited to have a few more best days of my life before I leave.

 

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A Day in[dia] the Life

Every time I try to think of some small topic to share about, or to summarize my week, I get lost in the endless stories and experiences that have already happened here! India is a place of incredible diversity and that has already manifested in a diversity of experience full of so many little details that I don’t know where to start or finish! So I’m going to attempt to describe a typical weekday here, which will maybe communicate a tiny snippet of what it’s actually like to be here.

7:40 am   My alarm goes off and after a snooze or two, I start getting ready for the day, making my bed (to make less work for the maid), choosing an outfit from my array of new and beautiful Indian clothes, and brushing my teeth without using the tap water.

8:10 am  Sundha (sp?), the main cook and maid at our homestay, knocks on the door of the room I share with Melissa, another girl from my program. She opens it and says “Come. Breakfast.” Breakfast is some form of toast with potatoes or butter or jam, and tea.

8:30 am  Melissa and I slather on bug repellent lotion and head outside to flag down an auto rickshaw. We use our limited Hindi to tell the rickshaw wala we want to go near to Saket Metro Station, where our program center is. We sometimes go through a few rickshaws before one will give us a reasonable price. Then we sit and hold on tight as the driver navigates through the absurd traffic.

9:00 am  Hindi class begins! We spend around two hours learning new vocabulary words and attempting to fit our mouths around the sounds that can be quite difficult for an English speaker. Of course, we break for tea at 10.

11:00 am  Tea time again. Accompanied by an Indian snack – samosas or pakora or other things I don’t know the names of yet.

11:30 am  A lecture. It has something to do with Hinduism, Buddhism, art, or some combination of the 3.  It’s presented either by Storm-ji, our rather eccentric but incredibly smart American academic director, or an Indian guest lecturer from a nearby university or similar institution. Always very interesting!

1:00 pm  Lunch at the program center, cooked by our amazing Indian chef. It varies a lot, but its usually a few curry type things, often rice, always some kind of bread – freshly made naan or chapati, a fresh salad, a fruit salad, and some kind of dessert – halwa or ice cream or custard. Always SO delicious.

2:00 pm  Another lecture, practicum, or an organized outing of some kind. One afternoon we explored and learned about the nearby Mehrauli Archaeological Site, where there are tombs, the remains of a medieval village and more. My practicum is cooking, so one afternoon I learned how to make fried pakora!

3:00 – 6:00 pm  Depending on when we get out, we’ll hang around the program center in the AC doing our reading for the next day, or taking advantage of the slow but unlimited internet. Then the 8 of us American students (sometimes minus 1 or 2) will find some new place to go. We’ve seen Khan Market, Hauz Khas Village, the Garden of Five Senses, and even organized to go see a traditional Indian play (in Hindi/Sanskrit of course) at the National School of Drama, which was an altogether incredible experience.

7:00 – 8:00 pm  Depending on if we went anywhere, or where we went, Melissa and I get home around this time. Because Delhi can be a little unsafe for foreigners, especially women, and because the program is a little overprotective, we have a 9:30 pm curfew. Whatever time we get home, we are usually dripping with sweat from the long day of exploring in the endless heat, so we’ll shower and get comfy, maybe work on readings or work for the next day. We’ve also explored the neighborhood a little, and found the nearby CR Park Market, as well as tons of little stores, temples, a Sikh Gurudwara, and more.

8:30 pm  Sundha will knock on our door and say “Come. Dinner.” This is actually pretty early for dinner in New Delhi, where a normal family might eat around 10 or 11. We eat just the two of us, sometimes with Kris, our temporary host brother from the Phillipines who is also here as a homestay of sorts. Dinner is usually rice and/or chapati, a potato curryish dish, some kind of dal, and green papaya salad. Sometimes there is fish, since our host mom is Bengali and fish is a staple of Bengali cuisine. Sometimes there are also the strangely textured, kind of indescribable Bengali sweets for dessert.

9:00 pm  Melissa and I will do homework or read a book from the large library available to us here. Melissa is an early-to-bed person, so she usually turns in around 10 or 10:30, and with little to do at night, I’ve been going to bed pretty early as well! Yay for enough sleep!

This, of course, is a painfully average day. I’ve done many other things including hanging out with Indian college students, seeing live music, watching a Bollywood movie in theatres, and more! New Delhi is hectic, crowded, hot, and unpredictable, but in a way that is still new and exciting. This weekend is our first free one, so we’re trying to explore even more of the city – Connaught Place with the guidance of one students host brothers today. Next weekend we go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal!

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Stars over New Delhi

First, a disclaimer (?! I hardly know her): I am a white person studying in a country of mostly people of color. I am an upper middle class American studying in a country rife with great economic disparity. I am someone who has studied Southeast Asian and Indian culture very little, studying in India. I’m studying this country and culture(s) from a place of immense privilege. My privilege and, to some degree, ignorance may make me say some problematic things, and I hope that anyone reading this blog who notices them will call me out for them!

The first few days in India have been orientation/syllabus days. On Tuesday, I met the other 7 students going on this adventure with me, as well as Storm-ji, our academic director, and a multitude of other program staff who I’ll be spending time with. We are currently staying at an ashram in New Delhi, and driving everywhere by taxi with a chaperone. In other words, still being relatively coddled by the program supervisors. After tonight, when we go to our homestay families, we’ll have to make our way around the city more independently.

So far New Delhi is not what I expected (of course). It’s actually kind of less intense than I imagined or was warned, and while there are a lot of new things, nothing has been too overwhelming or crowded or loud or hot or smelly. Yet.

The past 3 days, I’ve been to a few markets, read endlessly from an orientation booklet, ridden in an auto rickshaw, seen a Hindu temple, sat in traffic, looked at peacocks at the ashram, bought Indian clothes (so beautiful!), done some readings for class, sweat a lot, and, of course, eaten so so so well! The food here is incredible, and the cook at our program center is even more so. Tea is also an important part of the day, and I’ve been drinking chai by the gallon.

Today we had our first real lecture, and talked a little about the ancient Buddhist text The Bodhicaryavatara, which we’re going to be working through this semester, and how there are some things from this 8th century Indian text that we as modern Americans can still sympathize with fully.

Last night around 9, I went up on the roof of the ashram and had a moment of relative peace. The cacophony of horns produced by the absurd Delhi traffic didn’t stop, but I had a few minutes with just my thoughts, and it was very nice. In each direction, I could see city lights through the hazy sky, and above me, a few stars shone through.

I’m feeling optimistic about the semester to come. I know I will be challenged in ways I can’t even imagine, but I also know that I’ve already seen and experienced and eaten some amazing things, and I’m so excited to see what else India has in store!

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A Relaxed Weekend in Bangkok

Arriving in Bangkok after a week in Burma was a little bit of culture shock. All of a sudden there were Western influences and brands and TONS of tourists! In Burma the only Western brand I really saw was Coca cola, now all of a sudden there’s 7/11 and Snickers and Dasani! And I don’t stand out here nearly as much as I did there, which has actually been a very weird adjustment to make. 

Bangkok is a city to eat your way through. There are street food stalls every ten feet and roadside restaurants almost as frequently. My first meal when I arrived was some pad thai, and I’ve pretty much snacked constantly since.

 I’m trying to take it pretty easy here, since I have to start my semester in a new place very soon. Saturday I went to Chatuchak weekend market, one of the largest markets in the world. I didn’t expect to spend as much time there as I did, but I wandered, snacked and bought things (oops) for almost 4 hours. 

Today I saw one of the main temples here, Wat Pho, which houses a giant reclining Buddha, among other beautiful things. I’ve also spent time working on memorizing the Hindi alphabet – I have to know it before Hindi classes start this week! 

It’s been a very relaxed weekend full of wandering and sampling various delicious street foods. I also made some lovely new friends from France at my hostel. Even apart from the food and the people, I really like Bangkok and its atmosphere. It’s definitely a place I will want to come back and explore further, along with the rest of Thailand! 

Tomorrow morning I leave for New Delhi! Every fellow traveler I’ve talked to about my upcoming semester has had the same reaction – a look of shock and a statement along the lines of India being wild and very intense, which has definitely made me nervous. But the excitement still overpowers the nerves for sure. Next time I write will be from Delhi!

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A Day on the Lake

My “overnight” bus arrived in Nyaungshwe, the town on Inle Lakers  where most tourists stay, at 3:30 am. Another tourist girl and I commiserated in our tired cofusion, and split a tuk tuk to our respective hotels. I only had a hotel reservation for the next night,  but luckily they had a room ready – even only charged me for one night and counted it as an early check-in!

I spent the next day sleeping and recovering from some food poisoning that hadn’t been helped by the bumpy and curvy bus ride. I’m sad I missed out on some bike exploration around the lake, but it was probably for the best. I did manage to venture out that night for some pizza (I needed a familiar food), a traditional Burmese marionette show (ended up being a private show!), and, most importantly, to book my boat for the next day!


If you’re not hiking, the big thing to do here in Inle is to hire a motored canoe to tour the sites of the lake – pagodas, markets, workshops, and the jumping cat monastery! I was unable to book easily through my hotel because I needed to catch a bus the next day, and the fixed boat ride came back a little too late for comfort. So I ended up hiring privately. My boat driver was named Moe Moe, and we agreed to meet at 5:30 so I could see the sunrise on the lake (if I had  to go out earlier may as well go all the way!).

Moe Moe picked me up at my guest house, after I apologetically woke up the reception guy in order to check out. We walked down to the pier and he set up a little chair and cushion for me in the canoe, then we set off towards the lake down a little inlet. It was very early.


While the sunrise wasn’t much since it was cloudy, I think I was one of the first tourists on the lake that morning – or at least it felt like it! We passed by some of the Inle lake fishermen, famous for their one-legged paddling so that both of their hands are free to fish. We stopped at the big market, where I foolishly asked the price of a bracelet and then was trapped when I decided I didn’t want it – asking the price is the beginning of a negotiating contract to buy. Luckily Moe Moe rescued me.

Next we headed to a lotus/cotton weaving workshop, the main pagoda on the lake,  and afterwards a cheroot cigar workshop, where I was more interested in the TINY kittens running around. He stopped for his “lunch” at 9:30 am, then we saw a silversmith. The lake is very touristy in that in order to see the sights, you also have to be driven around to all these craft places and coerced into buying things. It was still pretty cool to see though, especially how they extract the fibers from the lotus root!


I splurged on an add-on to my boat trip – a quiet ride up a little marshy canal that led to Shwe Inn Thein, a site of over 1000 abandoned and crumbling stupas, as well as some newer ones. It was super cool, and despite the long walk through vendors, I was the only tourist there.

After that, our last stop was the Jumping Cat monastery! The cats don’t really jump anymore, but the story goes they used to be trained to jump through hoops by a monk. Now they mostly laze about and shy away from human touch (sadly. poor kitties).

Even with the add-on to the usual boat trip, we got back to town around 2, and I lounged around in my guesthouse’s public areas, nursing a new sunburn (I’ve actually had remarkably good luck with the weather here. Although it’s rainy season, the rain has yet to interfere with any of my plans! The sun has been more trouble, as evidenced by the sunburn).

I had lunch/dinner before walking over to the pick-up for my bus. After yet another long night on the bus, I am back in Rangoon! It’s been a whirlwind tour of the main sights of Burma, but also been pretty incredible!

I considered going out and about today, but with all my overnight buses and sunrise wake-ups, I was exhausted, so I wound up just sleeping and watching the new “Annie” movie with Giselle, Jessica’s daughter. I leave for Bangkok tomorrow morning.

I am a little sad that I don’t have more time to really enjoy more pieces of this beautiful country. The people here are incredibly welcoming and kind, even if they are trying to sell you something, and I have never once felt unsafe even though I’m traveling alone as a female. I never learned the Burmese word for goodbye, only hello – mingalaba – because everyone said it to me as I passed them. So I guess I won’t say goodbye to Burma, just mingalaba to my next adventure!

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