Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

May 1, 2006

Spain & Portugal

The ferry from Morocco arrived at the tiny port of Tarifa, Spain. Once then able to communicate again with everyone, we easily found our bus to Algeciras, which on a map is a small city just a short distance up the Costa del Sol. But the route in reality, instantly climbed instead into some pretty impressive coastal mountains that offered sweeping vistas of the Mediterranean, before just dropping right back down to sea level again. Our room in a hotel we’d booked well before ever arriving in Algeciras, was basic and overlooked a busy street. But it was a beautiful sight for tired eyes, and sleep came quick and easy.

Our first wakeup in Spain was exciting, and we caught an early bus to the Spanish border town of La Linea de la Concepcion not too far away. From there, we walked across the border into the UK territory of Gibraltar, where we suddenly encountered British accents and heard the jingle of pounds in our pockets. Of course, the country of Gibraltar is only about 3 miles long and at most 1 mile wide, and most of it is dominated by the huge landmass that is the Rock of Gibraltar. A 5-minute city bus ride from the border, took us across the runway of the tiny Gibraltar Airport (they close the road like at a railroad crossing for flight arrivals and departures), and then to the base of the steep western slopes of the “Rock”.

Most people make their way to the top of the 426-meter Rock of Gibraltar, via a cable car. But we chose to take a series of walking paths and narrow roads up to the various sights that can be seen up there, with plenty of opportunity to stop and enjoy the views during our steep climb. So about halfway towards the laborious top, we were surprised to suddenly see a chattering group of monkeys, surrounded by an equally chattering group of tourists. They (the tourists) were taking another route to the top in guided mini-tour buses, when their guide stopped the bus, and began enticing the monkeys to interact with the visitors by giving them (the monkeys) peanuts. Amazingly, the monkeys had little apprehension about jumping from one person’s head to the next to get a hold of a peanut, and then shelling the peanut into that lucky person’s hair. Rob quickly shoved me into the group where a monkey was making the rounds, and soon enough, I too had a Barbary Ape sitting on my head.

So, then after brushing shell crumbs from my hair (and who knows what else), we noticed another group of tourists peering over a rock wall down over the steep cliffs that rise high above town far below. There, adorably cute baby monkeys were swinging and jumping from branch to branch in trees that clinging to the rock face just below us, seemingly oblivious to the dangers should one take a fall. It was interesting, that these monkeys were wild and had a habitat in which to live right there on the Rock of Gibraltar. But there was plenty of inaccessible space for them to hang out in, and lots of Eucalyptus leaves to eat.

We next entered into a natural cave on the south end of the Rock. It had many cool rock formations, but was mainly known for a huge amphitheater that was constructed inside, where orchestra concerts often took advantage of the unique acoustics. We also toured a portion of the Great Siege Tunnels, a WWII defense tunnel system over 30 miles in length, that had been dug throughout the north side of the “Rock”, complete with cannons and other armaments pointing through small openings facing the bay. Of course, we also had to actually get all the way to the top of the “Rock”, to call our volksmarch a true success. But since it was illegal to enter the old gun battery station at the Rock of Gibraltar’s highest most point, we just snuck our way through that closed off section, for an astounding, leg-wobbling view from the top. It was partly cloudy that morning for as far as you could see, but the winds screaming up the eastern slopes and over the summit, created an ever-present cloud right on top of the mountain that never went away.

On our way down, we ran into a few more monkeys on our trail. And one ran right up to me and jumped on my back. It seemed perfectly content to just sit there for a while. At least, until another one came along and jumped on my back, and also felt like just sitting there a while. So now I had two monkeys sitting on my back, and then two found it a neat place to play, and then fight, with all sorts of shrieking and hollering going on. Rob was too busy laughing and taking pictures to help me out. Plus, we’d read that the monkeys may seem to be quite tame and friendly, but as soon as you try to touch or pet one, you’d probably get bitten. So, you just let those pesky monkeys do whatever they want to do, and the ones on my back eventually did get off.

A little later, we saw what real aerial flyers the monkeys were, as they jumped and gracefully maneuvered from the rock walls, to people’s heads, to side-view mirrors, to tops of cars and buses with equal ease. One came flying out of nowhere at one point, and used Rob’s head as a jumping pad as it went from a wall to the top of a bus. Barely felt a thing, he said. And how many poor unsuspecting tourists did we hear eeking with fright, when a monkey would suddenly appear out of the blue, and land in their hair. The trip down the mountain was much faster than the one up. But our worked legs were grateful for the bus ride that took us from town and back to the border, where we walked across back into Spain to find our next ride.

So, after riding in planes, trains, taxis, buses, a ferry, and our own aching feet, we were now ready to travel in a rental car which we got right there in La Linea. I shifted through the gears like a racecar driver, and we left the city behind us for the sceneries of southern Spain. Into some mountains we climbed first, past fields of drying grasses and colorful spring wildflowers. Groves of olive, cocoa, and almond trees lined the road, as did fragrant eucalyptus trees and hill crowning oaks that were often missing their trunk bark taken for the production of corks. The weather felt like California, hot and dry and the chance for rain slim, in a place that sees 320 days of sunshine a year. And soon we encountered the first of many traditional Andalucian hill towns that we’d pass through and sometimes get lost in during our trip, that are all painted bright white with brown or red tiled roofs. The effect is startling in the sunlight, and even more vivid under perfectly blue skies.

The night was pleasantly warm, and the perfect temperature for sleeping in our tent in a campground near the town of Arcos de la Frontera. We strolled the narrow, orange tree lined cobble-stoned streets of Arcos in the morning, which was a walled town situated high on a rock with cliffs on three sides. Next, we traveled on to another perched pueblo, called Zahara de la Sierra. Most of these hamlets were long ago built in tough to get at places on purpose, and then protected by defense barriers constructed around them. Numerous conquests throughout history by the Muslim Moors from northern Africa that lasting hundreds of years, were ultimately countered by the Christians, who eventually reclaimed their settlements and weren’t about to lose them again. The resulting swapping, makes for an interesting mix today of Moorish and Christian architecture, and all within impressive, still existing fortified settings.

In Zahara, we picked up a wilderness permit to enter into the nearby Garganta Verde, a steep slot canyon walk down to a boulder filled dry riverbed with a huge half-covered cavern. Along the way, large Griffon Vultures nesting in the area cliffs circled lazily above us, and often soared by at eye level or below us. The cavern was colored bright pink and dull green, and the mineral stalagmites and stalactites looked like Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars, while swirling sparrows created their own growing piles of hue. Back on the road and off that hot uphill trail, I tested out our mighty Ford Fiesta on mountainous ascents and switchback curves as we passed over towering Dove’s Pass. I was having a blast and didn’t want to stop for nothin’, but Rob wanted to take pictures of the roofs in Grazalema (go figure) before we roared on again to the famed bullring town of Ronda. And then much like all the others, Ronda was set high atop a rock, … well, actually two rocks, with a very tall bridge spanning the deep gorge below that connected the “old town” with the “new town”. It’s said, that the builder of the bridge way back when, fell to his death upon inspecting his finished product. And of course, many a bull have also met their fate just down the boulevard, in Spain’s oldest bullring, where Ernest Hemmingway learned to appreciate the art and dance of man versus beast.

We strolled down Ronda’s main pedestrian lane at about 5pm looking for something to eat, but had our first encounter with the odd mealtime hours in Spain. All the restaurants and eating joints were closed, and had been that way since two or three in the afternoon. And according to what we could find out, none would open again until eight or nine at night. The best we could do, was eat ice cream cones, before we began our evening drive to El Chorro, surviving on crackers along the way.

Rob had booked a guided tour to traverse a canyon with an outfit based in El Chorro for the next day. Guidebook and web information claimed that there was a campground there, and facilities for groups of persons to stay and prepare for any one of a multitude of climbing opportunities amidst the spiny limestone outcroppings of the region. We thought there’d at least be a tiny store there, and maybe somewhere to actually eat. But our hopes vanished quickly, as direction signs from the very remote and hidden small community of El Chorro, directed us even deeper into nothingness to reach the Finca de la Capana base camp. And when we got there, there was nothing seemingly there.

A sign on the door of a cabin told, that newly arriving guests needed to go around back to a parked trailer and find Rachel. Rob went to investigate, and did indeed find a small trailer with its door open that looked like a hippy den. Then he found two young boys who had no idea where Rachel was or when she may be back. Lucky to speak Spanish in this instance, Rob was able to find out, that the father of one of the boys was someone Rob had been communicating with over the web, concerning the canyon climb that he had booked. So, Rob asked the boy where his father was, and the boy didn’t know that either, but said he’d check up at the other house. Rob followed him a ways to another structure, and sure enough, the boy found four people seated around a table drinking wine and playing cards, and one was Rachel, and another our guide Juan.

For feeling lost in the ozone for a while there, we were suddenly fully welcomed, and offered a place to pitch our tent. And it turned out, that there was a hostel-type setting there also, where lots of climbers could bed down in a bunkhouse, and use a communal kitchen and gathering area to share tales. And we never really figured out exactly who those other people were at the table with Rachel and Juan, but they were British and spoke that type of English, and had facial ornaments and red-streaked hair along with Rachel. Juan, who looked Spanish, was married to a Brit he said and spoke perfect English. But he told us he wouldn’t be able to guide us the next day, because he was going to take someone to Morocco to climb in the mountains there. But, he did say, that he’d lined us up someone else to take us, and would meet us the next morning.

So, we had nothing of course to cook in the kitchen, but we did buy some more crackers from a very tiny store on the premises. The setting was very beautiful amidst the surrounding mountains, but we had to wonder about the apparent cult-type situation we’d found ourselves within. It felt peaceful enough there, but also a bit strange. It was also getting dark by now, and we just sat by our tent eating our granola bars and cookies and watching a full moon rise above a valley spread out before filled with orange groves and olive trees. We made one last trip to the bathroom to brush our teeth, when suddenly a group of about eight middle-teenaged kids appeared from who knows where, and decided to start playing hide and go seek for hours in to the night in the hills around us. Juan told us that during climbing season (Oct-Mar), the Finca was often bustling with people. But now, to us it was seemingly semi-shut down, and hardly any climbers to be found, except for this mob of very immature school kids keeping us awake, who didn’t at all seem like climbing types. It was all very bizarre.

But of course the sun still rose the next morning regardless, and the day simply gorgeous. And we were happy with the thought of going on what was probably our first-ever guided tour. Hendrik picked us up in his rickety old van at the hour that we were told he would, and after wanting to stop for a breakfast bagel in town (he said his cupboards were bare too), we took off for the other side of the huge canyon we’d passed arriving the evening before. Then after several miles of twisting roads, Hendrik parked his van next to a crystal blue lake, and we loaded ourselves with climbing harnesses and related gear. Hendrik then took the chance to explain that he wasn’t a regular guide for Finca, and actually had his own guiding service. But whenever Juan needed help, he was always willing to assist him.

We then walked across the road and straight into a dark tunnel, but with no flashlight! It was a perfectly straight tunnel about 300 meters long, and 5 steps into it, I could see nothing but a small pinpoint of light at the other end. It was like walking blind, having to trust that the floor was smooth (it was), and that the ceiling was high enough (Rob bumped his head once), and that nothing would jump out at us from the dark (it didn’t). It was such a surreal experience, that I would gladly walk through it again.

But making it to the other end of the tunnel wasn’t at all the point of the guided tour. Hendrik explained to us, that the tunnel was only the portal to a long, narrow gorge once out the other end of the tunnel, that had a raging river running through it, that the Spanish government years ago wanted to build a canal in, to carry water to the coast and city of Malaga. But, to have easier accessibility for those who’d eventually work in the gorge, a catwalk made of steel supports and cement pathways was somehow built along the sides of the vertical walls of the gorge. This catwalk, named El Camino del Rey, has since slowly disintegrating over the years, after the government long ago abandoned its projects within the gorge. And now being quite dangerous to walk along, the authorities, making it impossible for anyone to access it, destroyed the beginning and end of the catwalk. And that’s where Hendrik comes in.

Hendrik lead us to a cliff edge high above the river below, and helped us rappel down the gorge wall from the top to the an intact portion of the antiqued catwalk. And thus began our 5 km journey down the canyon, half of which was along the sheer walls of the gorge. Far below us, the river crashed over boulders and spun with furry. Far above us, more vultures circled. In many sections, the catwalk was missing its cement flooring, and simply just walking along as we were doing, was no longer possible. We had to inch our way carefully across the remaining support beams (they looked like railroad track) while clinging to the rock wall. The river beneath us became increasing distant at those times, and a slip or freak accident surely would have spelt disaster. But Hendrik, who strode always unconcerned ahead of us in the lead, amazingly wore nothing on his feet for the trip, but flip-flops.

Hendrik had grown up in the area, and was perhaps more familiar with the gorge than anyone else. He was an adventurous and curious child and teen, who knew all of the nooks and crannies of the canyon. And although as an adult he left several times to pursue his livelihood, he said he seemed to always return back to the canyon. And just a few years ago, lived for more than a year in a cave with his girlfriend, who eventually convinced him that they needed to live in a regular house, where he could have a phone and computer to run his guiding business. But Hendrik kept mentioning to us, how much he just loves the outdoors, and that being outdoors in southern Spain is easy, because it’s almost always warm, and it hardly ever rains. And he’d learned through his life, to rock climb and handle the ropes needed to do so, and felt so lucky, that his skills were now earning him a living as a guide in the canyon he’s had a 35 year relationship with. And he was constantly pointing out all along the way, all sorts of climbing routes and their difficulty levels, and sharing countless stories of personal escapades in the canyon, that became as fascinating as the scenery all around us.

Midway through the gorge, the catwalk actually ceased, and we followed a lovely path in an open valley along the river for a while. But it wasn’t long before we were up on the continuation of the catwalk, that climbed even higher than before into the narrowing gorge. Our perch as well, was becoming more and more fragile, and Hendrik soon had us attach lead lines to our harnesses that we clipped to cables, that Hendrik and his friends had once fastened to the rock face for the safety of their clients. He though, walked along unattached and as carefree as ever in his flip-flops, while our carabineers buzzed along the metal cable as we moved slowly along to the most difficult section of broken cement. I held on to the cable for dear life, as I looked down to see nothing but empty space for hundreds of feet below me to the river. And then suddenly, the catwalk simply just ended as it had begun, … in empty space. It was at this point, that Hendrik prepared for our final 100-foot rappel down to the ground, during which we each walked backwards down the sheer face of the cliff, four hours after we’d begun our journey at the other end of the canyon.

The road out of El Chorro to civilization again, was hilly and very windy. And it was late in the afternoon when we finally got there, meaning that all eating establishments were closed. A couple of bars we found were indeed open and advertised that they served food, but when we went in, we were told that there’d be no food until eight or nine o’clock that night. So, we continued on to the town of Iznajar, eating the crumbs of the crackers we’d had. Our guidebook had promised, that near to Iznajar on the edge of a reservoir, was Andalusia’s “most scenic campground”. But when we arrived, we found the water all right, and a beach down to it, but were told that no such campground existed. There were people indeed camping there, and we learned you could do so there for free, but there were no showers or bathroom facilities. So, with few other options and dirty from a long day of hiking, we bathed right there in the lake. Then we went into town, to at last hopefully find something to eat.

But we walked all over the place, and strangely couldn’t even find a restaurant. Then finally, we found another bar, that offered simple hot meals, … but of course, not until after nine o’clock. We didn’t feel like waiting (it was 8:00), and started to drive back to the campground (?) eating the last of our peanuts. But then finally we got lucky, and spotted a roadside café on the way back to the beach that was actually serving food before midnight. And did we ever eat like kings from a giant platter of Paella (rice with seafood), and another huge plate disgustingly smothered with different types of tasty Iberian salami. It was after dark by the time we got back to the beach and the woods where everyone else had set up camp, and we set up ours amongst some trees in only five minutes by moonlight, and were asleep in ten.

The next morning, we were up and gone early. We left the state of Andalucia, and were heading for Portugal through the Spanish state of Extremadura. It was an expansive and arid place that was mostly flat, with dry grassy plains where you could see forever. But we spotted something odd grazing in those wind-swayed grasses. They weren’t cows, or goats, or sheep, or horses. They were storks! That’s right, storks. Big ‘ol birds searching for who knows what, but there were plenty of them out there. Then of course, we began to spot them flying around, and were easy to see because of their great size and odd, almost goofy looking prehistoric flying style. Finally, we spotted some sitting in their gigantic nests atop telephone poles, on rooftops, on chimneys, and in trees. And they soon became as common a sighting, as mile markers and speed limit signs.

We’d driven all morning into the heat of the day, and on the map we saw that we’d be nearing another reservoir at the town of Orellana. Good place to cool off we figured. And what a great surprise it was when we got there. Right there in the middle of a lot of nothing, was a body of water so refreshingly blue and clean and clear, that Rob said it rivaled any he’d ever been in, including cenotes in Mexico, and Whiskeytown Lake in Redding, California. To say the least, we got some good sun and had a fabulous swim, before continuing on to our first real destination of the day.

Trujillo was another hill-topped, walled medieval city, which may have had a greater population of storks than people. They were perched atop practically every church spire and building top, and had nests in all of the bell towers. The town itself was also unique for its dated Moorish castle, with amazing expansive views of the surrounding countryside. And its hilly maze of cobble-stoned streets were lined with cool old crumbling buildings, and really made you feel like you were part of a scene from long ago. Interestingly, Trujillo was the home of many great Spanish visionaries and adventures from way back when, including a few that were responsible for conquering indigenous civilizations in Central and South America. But now, it was just the storks doing the invading.

During the late afternoon hours, we knew better than to try and get something to eat, and instead stopped for gas near the Portugal border. And right next to the gas station, was a McDonalds, that was open, and a box of chicken nuggets and large fries and soft drink did the trick. Plus, there were vanilla cones for $.80 cents. Then with full bellies, we crossed into Portugal. And then only a few kilometers later, arrived at a campground. We took a quick cooling shower, and next hurried to another nearby hilltop, medieval city called Elvas. This one was as interesting as the rest, except for the added attraction of having an amazing wall around it, complete with all sorts of turrets and well thought-out defense positions, and a wide and deep mote.

It was there in Elvas, that we began our study of Portugal, and the people who live there. A seemingly bit calmer bunch than the Spanish, you often see old widowed ladies dressed in black, and everyone speaks a language that I guess we’d never really listened to much before. During our 200-mile drive the next day towards Lisbon, which shockingly cost $18.75 in tolls on the highway, we listened to the radio a lot as we had in Spain. In Portugal, almost every song was in English, mostly old and new pop hits from the US. Yet in between tunes, the DJs spoke Portuguese, which sounded a tiny bit like Spanish, a bit like Dutch, but surprisingly mostly a lot like Russian. In Spain of course, they spoke Spanish, but the real kind , not Latin American Spanish. The letter “c” in most instances didn’t have an “s” sound, as in “gracias”, but a “th” sound, which made everyone sound as if they had a lisp. And very few songs in English were ever heard, only lots of very lively traditional Spanish flamenco-type songs, with thumbed acoustic guitars and wild castanet playing.

Lisbon was a traffic-jammed, hilly smog-shrouded metropolis, that rose from the shores of a large bay much like San Francisco. We decided to park at the airport, instead of trying to drive into the center of the city, and simply took a bus to where all the tourist highlights were. It was a fun place to walk around, and as always, Rob loved roaming through the city’s maze of narrow alleys, where laundry hung from windows and the locals watched him from their balconies. And I enjoyed our rides and the views from aboard the town’s tram and cable car system, that gave us a great overall feel for what Lisbon was like. We probably could have eaten lunch anywhere, because all eating establishments seemed open all of the day, but we had chicken nuggets with fries at a McDonalds instead. Strange, because McDonalds throughout Europe doesn’t at all seem to have the reputation of being a greasy, good for nothing fastfood place like in the US. In fact, McDonalds restaurants in Europe are often individually decorated and sometimes almost classy looking, and are usually quite packed. Plus they have those cheap vanilla cones, and our day in Lisbon was sunny and hot.

To escape the populace masses, we slowly fought our way through rush-hour traffic jams toward the much quieter Portuguese coast. On our way, we encountered a coastal mountain range, and discovered a fairytale village called Sintra nearly lost in its eucalyptus tree slopes. And perched unbelievably atop a giant rock way above all else, was a dated cool looking castle that was once a vacation getaway spot for rich rulers from days long gone by. Our drive up twisting roads to as close as we could get to it, was a steep climb through lush vegetation, and invited many moments of imagining how anyone could have gotten up there between 500 and 900 years ago. But what we found at the coast was even more breathtaking.

After finding another campground and a store where we bought some bread and cheese and a few apples, we headed out to the western most point in Europe. Cabo da Roca, the most western point in Spain (and Europe) was a high, cliff top vista overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with pounding waves and an amazing, peacefully colorful sunset. In the morning, we returned to another sandy spot along the coast, to start our day watching surfers and pelicans ride the waves. Then it was back into the traffic around Lisbon, before we eventually escaped its gridlock to the much quieter towns east of Lisbon known as Evora and Monzaras.

Yet another walled city, Evora had a very peculiar and somewhat gruesome tourist attraction. There was this place called The Chapel of Bones, where a long time ago, monks of the area tried making more room in the town cemetery for people who had died, by removing the remains of 4,000 bodies already buried in the cemetery. The bones of those thousands of people were then used in the construction of the chapel walls. Skulls, femurs, and tibias were all over the place, along with a hanging skeleton of one of the monks who built it.

Near Monzaras, there existed even older evidence of peoples who lived in the area thousands of years ago. Stone circles, much like those in found England and Scotland, were scattered across the countryside. One such cluster of remote rocks that we visited, was recently moved from its original site, because it was in the flood plain of a damn built a few years ago. The stones were supposedly meticulously removed and identically resituated in their new spot. But we had to wonder, if the stones then had the same power and significance in their new location, as they had when they were first put into place by their creators. For the tourists, we guessed so.

Shortly after witnessing the odd bones and stones, we entered back into another wide-open grassy area of eastern Portugal on our way back to Spain, where it was again obviously a prime habitat for storks. Nests were all over the place atop power line poles, and flocks of the lanky large birds were perched on limbs in trees that seemed to barely hold them up. Then after crossing the border into Spain, we entered into some rugged mountains and drove to the town of Arcenas, where we were went on a tour of a really beautiful cave where the movie, Journey to the Center of the Earth was filmed. And as we wandered our way through levels of spectacular cave formations, a fantastically effective colored lighting system highlighted the many underground lakes and caverns that we passed. Then hungry and a bit tired, we bought a grand selection of sweet breads and a huge jar of olives at a Arcenas store, and went to a nearby deserted campground to relax the afternoon away and munch on our goodies.

The rising sun of the following morning radiated into our rent-a-car as we sped south to Seville under a hot and hazy sky. But, we first visited a small bird sanctuary on the border of a large nature preserve located just south of Seville. It was bizarre, how only 15 miles from a thriving metropolitan sprawl, there could be a million content and happy birds. El Parque Natural de Donana in southern Spain, was directly on the migrating path of countless species of birds, and a true haven for fowl play. We saw a grand collection of birds ranging from storks to flamingos, to all sorts of ducks and herons. It all made for a peaceful morning, before we got badly tangled and twisted up trying to get into Seville. But at last, we parked in a very expensive underground garage, and then let our feet do the walking.

The center of Seville turned out to be a very beautiful, laidback place, full with city parks lush with tropical vegetation, orange trees lining boulevards of rustic architecture, narrow alleys with quaint cafes and tapa bars, one of the largest cathedrals on earth, a stunning Moorish inspired Alcazar palace, and a sparkling river lingering through it all. We pretty much explored it all until our feet began to ache, including climbing the 5 billion steps up to the cathedral’s tower, which offered captivating views of the city below. Of course, when we finally thought about being hungry that afternoon, all the restaurants in town that served the local specialty dish known as tapas, weren’t serving them again until nightfall. So, you guessed it, we ate chicken nuggets and fries at an outdoor, café-style table at a McDonalds. And then, vanilla cones to go.

Our evening hours were spent driving south to the coastal town of El Puerto de Santa Maria, where we found a campground. We were up well before dawn with flashlights the next morning though, because we needed to pack up our tent and bags for our early morning flight from Jerez, up the road only 15 miles. We dropped off our car and got our boarding passes, and then watched much of what we’d just traveled through, fade from sight. And then how crazy it was to us, that not even three hours later, we landed in Germany. And had gone from 95-degree temps and a dry, parched landscape, to 60-degree rainy weather and more green than was comprehendible. It had been summer in Morocco, Spain, and Portugal, where it seems it’s usually that way most of the time. And as we were landing, fields of yellow springtime flowers only reminded us, that we were home again, just in time for the start of summer, and its vacations.

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