Top 5 Gift Ideas for Zen Travellers

One of the easiest ways to improve one’s outlook on life is to give to others, and ’tis the season after all. So here you go readers, my first “listicle” (à la Buzzfeed):

Gift Ideas for the Zen-minded Adventure 

5) Buff Headwear

One thing that can harsh a traveller’s Zen is being bogged down with too much stuff. This is where Buff comes in. I’m truly surprised by how much I love my Buff. I’ve used it for extra warmth during cross-country skiing, alpine touring, and hiking Mount Elgon in Uganda. I’ve used it for sun protection at Austin City Limits, while hiking on hot summer days in Alberta and at the beach in Zanzibar. I’ve also used it as a pre-filter with my water filter while hiking in the Rwenzori mountains. Buffs are warm, lightweight, some have a sun protection factor of 50+ and all are versatile. Bonus points for affordability, as most are only around $20. 
4)  Give the Gift of Travel

Research shows that experiences create more happiness than things and there are plenty of ways to gift an experience to a traveller. Discount websites like Groupon and Travelzoo offer deals on hotels, meals in restaurants, and activities that the traveller can schedule on their own. Many hotels offer gift certificates, as do some airlines. In short, it is easy to give a traveller what they would like the most, more travel!

3) Gift Your Points
Have you been collecting Air Miles for years and don’t plan on using them any time soon? What about those points for an airline that may expire soon if you don’t use them? Many reward programs will allow you to transfer your points to an eager traveller who will gladly put them to use. It may seem like a stingy gift, but I know I for one would be thrilled to have them over some special from a big box store any day. 
2) Local Currency

All the monies in the world!

If the resident travellers in your life have been talking about their upcoming trips, chances are they would love to receive some local currency to wherever they’re travelling to as a gift. Not only does it show your travel-crazy friends that you actually listen to them, it can also help to alleviate some of their stress by having a bit of local currency in hand when they arrive in a new place. Also, it  makes it more likely that you will receive a nice souvenir from them in return,  thereby creating an infinite loop of gift-giving happiness and who wouldn’t want that?
1) If you can’t afford to buy them a Go Pro, Go Old School with a Travel Journal

Ibn Batutta’s tomb in Tangier, Morocco

blogged before about how I really could have used a Go Pro Hero 4 during certain moments of my recent trip to East Africa. But in the absence of one of those fancy contraptions which I cannot justify buying for myself, a plain old travel journal will suffice to record memories. Gifting a travel journal to your favourite traveller will allow them to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Ibn Batutta whose journal has inspired explorers for centuries. It has the added bonus of making the traveller think of you every time they open it, so if you miss them when they’re on one of their rambles, you could think of it as a gift that guarantees you’ll always be in their heart, wherever in the world they may be. 
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First Time SCUBA Diving? The Trick is to Keep Breathing

While enjoying my office’s lunchtime yoga practice, the instructor reminded the class that it is impossible for a body to maintain a stress response while breathing slowly. As anyone who practices yoga will know, breath is the foundation of the practice. It coaxes you through difficult movements while also allowing for greater relaxation. Breath is healing, uplifting and crucial to being Zen.

Breath is also one of the most important aspects of SCUBA diving as Philip and I learned in Zanzibar this year.

We looked into taking the course here in Calgary but decided against it since our test dive would be out at a cold pond with little to no visibility. If we were going to learn a new sport, why not do it where you may see tropical fish and even sea turtles?

We researched SCUBA Diving in Zanzibar and decided that we would head to Divine Diving and Yoga in Nungwi. They had fantastic reviews on Trip Advisor and we liked the idea that we may be able to do a yoga class there as well.

Who wouldn’t want to learn to SCUBA dive here?
Photo Credit: Divine Diving Facebook page

After a scenic drive from Stonetown with our affable cabbie Sidiki, who told us the “real prices” for certain goods and let us stop to take a picture of a chameleon on the road, we checked-in to the New Safina Bungalows excited to start our course the next day. We had arranged the course via email prior to leaving Canada  headed across the street to check in with Divine. Once there, we were instructed to watch some riveting videos and given homework to do as well.

This guy! (We couldn’t help ourselves. Don’t judge.)

The next morning an unfortunate breakfast delay meant that we weren’t able to get into the pool that day so we watched more riveting videos and practised getting the equipment on and off. I felt pretty good about things and was excited to try out what I was learning in the pool. The next day we finally got to try breathing underwater. It feels amazing but also pretty claustrophobic, and when it came to demonstrating the skills, I felt like I had only lucked into doing them right in front of the instructor the first time. In hindsight, I wish that I could have had more time to go over the skills in the pool.

With just the one pool session under our belt, the following day we got suited up and headed out on a boat for our very first ocean dive. The first dive was just a practice dive to feel comfortable and get used to being underwater. It took a bit of effort to find my buoyancy sweet spot, but otherwise the dive was divine.

Unfortunately for us, things became difficult during the second dive. In order to be certified for further diving, we had to prove that we could do the same skills that we did in the pool under the sea as well. Philip and I got through the test fine until it was time to fill your mask with sea water and then clear it. Philip couldn’t get it cleared so he shot up to the surface as quick as he could which is the exact opposite of what the books, videos and instructors tell you to do. I hadn’t cleared my mask all the way and water kept trickling up my nose which made me want to go up too. I signalled to the instructor that was left at the sea floor (the other had followed Philip to the top) that I wanted to go up as well. She shook her head “no” and made the sign for “down” but I didn’t listen and slowly went up anyway.

I was as unstoppable as a T-Rex with arm extenders.
Photo credit:

Philip had been suffering at the surface since he inhaled a bunch of water during his hasty ascent and was debating throwing in the towel for the day, even though it meant not getting certified. However, after a little time and a good sized belch, he felt better and decided to go back down. By that time I had cleared my mask fully and was ready again too.

We returned to the sea floor and watched as the others in the group demonstrated their superior mask clearing skills but when it came to my turn, I struggled first with getting the water in and then with getting it out. All of a sudden water was shooting up my nose and down my throat which made me cough and spit out my regulator causing me to breathe in even more water.

To say I panicked as a result of this is an understatement. I cannot remember a time when I have ever felt that terrified. I have experienced anxiety in the past but nothing like this pure, raw panic. I tried to make for the surface in haste but the instructor held me under because fast ascents are dangerous and I had to learn to solve my problems underwater if I wanted to keep diving. For what felt like an eternity, I thrashed about, caring more about getting the instructor to let go of me so I could go up to the surface than I did about breathing underwater. I kept spitting my regulator out and the instructor would have to put it back in my mouth and clear it for me because I couldn’t even remember to do that. After a while, my blurred vision cleared and it seemed like my mask was free of water. Next I became aware that the instructor was staring at me intensely and realizing that he was finally getting through to me, he made the hand signal for slow breathing. At last I was able to take stock of the situation: I was not in any kind of dire danger and I could breathe and see clearly since there was no more water in my mask. I focused on breathing slowly and deliberately until my heart rate came down and I felt comfortable to continue. In the end, it was my breath that brought me back from the brink…staring into the handsome instructor’s bright blue eyes helped too (sorry Phil).

Carrying on, the other more competent divers demonstrated their skills to the instructors while us troublemakers sat quietly in the sand and regained our composure. Once the testing was over, we went for another swim and tried to enjoy the dive despite our very best efforts to ruin the whole thing for ourselves. I was still rattled but enjoyed seeing all the fish and coral, as well as the feeling of weightlessness that comes with finding the perfect buoyancy underwater. When it was time to go up, I was both relieved to be back on Terra firma but disappointed that my diving experiences were coming to an end. I also felt really guilty that I had made the dive less enjoyable for the other people in the course. One of them, a beautiful freckled Brit named Annie, was kind enough to reassure me that nerves and SCUBA diving were not unique to me. She told me that she had actually run out of air on her first dive since she was breathing so quickly on account of being nervous. I told myself that if Annie could get over running out of air on her first dive, then surely there was hope for me.

Later on in the boat, the instructor informed us that our dive had been “challenging” and that he couldn’t give us our certification. We were disappointed but not surprised to hear it. Underwater panic attacks and rushing the surface are quite dangerous after all. After sitting quiet for some time, the instructor  came over again to say that we could try to arrange some time to practice in the pool and then demonstrate the skills just off the beach. He gave us the options of later that afternoon, or early the next morning. He also explained an easier way to both fill and clear the mask by pressing on the top, rather than trying to peel and lift the mask from the bottom which is what is shown in the videos.

At least we tried?

I felt like I needed to sleep the stress from earlier off, so I voted for the next morning but Phil wanted to get it over with and voted for the afternoon. I reluctantly agreed thinking that if the worst case scenario came true where we failed yet again, we could still have one more try the next morning. Unfortunately, in addition to everything else bad that had happened that day, Phil came down with a bad fever about an hour later and determined that he needed to sleep it off too. While he laid in bed for the rest of the day, I checked out the market near our hotel and found a place to watch one of Zanzibar’s superlative sunsets and reflect on our eventful day.

I don’t believe I could ever tire of these sunsets.

I woke the next morning feeling refreshed, excited and determined to finish the course yet still a little nervous. We headed back to Divine and waited for the instructors to come. Yet another miscommunication meant that they thought since Philip was sick we weren’t coming any more, so he didn’t show up early as planned. Once he arrived, the instructor informed us that in order to have enough time to try the skills, we would have to skip the pool session and head straight out to the ocean. So this would be our one off.

I took a deep breath and suited up. I continued to focus on my breathing as we walked out to the reef just off the shore of the beach front. When it was time to duck under, I felt calm enough. We first tested the skills in shallow water and it went remarkably well. We used the mask clearing method that the instructor had taught us which served us well through the test in deeper water. Once we demonstrated that we could do it twice, the instructor clapped his hands for us and I made the hand signal for “go swimming” feeling invigorated to do more. We puttered around a little bit but had to get back to the shore so the instructor could get ready for his day.

As we reluctantly headed back, I felt much better about the skills and even practised clearing my mask when I didn’t need to. We were both so relieved and ecstatic that we would get our certification after all and would be able to go on more dives in the future. It wasn’t exactly in the itinerary for the rest of our trip, but we resolved to try to get one more dive in if possible and would collect intel about potential dive spots from other travellers wherever we could.

We are so grateful that the instructors at Divine Diving and Yoga gave us an extra chance to try the skills we struggled with and never gave up on us. Although the experience didn’t go as smoothly as planned, we persevered and eventually learned to love the feeling of breathing under water. I can’t wait until we get to do it again. This experience clearly demonstrated that in times of stress, the trick is to keep breathing.

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Travel for You and No One Else

As someone who recently returned to work from an awesome vacation, this article called “Your colleagues don’t want to hear about your awesome vacation” caught my attention. It featured a study that was published in Science Daily where the study author says:

“The participants in our study mistakenly thought that having an extraordinary experience would make them the star of the conversation,” (…). “But they were wrong, because to be extraordinary is to be different than other people, and social interaction is grounded in similarities.” In other words, being extraordinary is isolating and could lead to negative, rather than positive feelings. 

The article author then goes on to say the takeaway of the study is: If you expect your super-awesome vacation to lead to great conversations with friends and colleagues when you get home, think again—and hide the photos.”

I have so many issues with this statement, and my experiences have been very different. I know that nobody wants to be around the person who won’t stop talking about the places they’ve been, and doing so can actually be a symptom of reverse culture shock, but every time I have returned from somewhere, people have asked me a lot of questions about the place and stated that they want to see my pictures. 

I experienced a bit of reverse culture shock myself when I returned to Canada after living in Mali for 5 months. For me what was alienating was not that I wasn’t the centre of attention, but that it was so hard to explain to everyone just how truly life changing that experience was. No I wasn’t just backpacking around Africa for 6 months, I had made a home and learned to live within a new culture. I had made friends and learned to love my host family. I experienced things, good and bad, that I know most people I know will never experience. I was different and changed but people treated me the same. Just like when I had moved to Bamako, I had to learn to live a new normal when I returned to Canada. One where my friends and family may not always understand what I had experienced and eventually I learned that there was no point trying to explain it. People asking about my time there wanted the highlight reel, rather than the whole, complex and gritty truth.  In the end, I think that it is enough to be eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to experience something that was so epic, to me

Looking for something to do during a weekend in Bamako? Get your fortune told to you.

3 years after returning from Mali, I met up with one of my friends I made there in Montreal. We wandered from dive bar to dive bar and stayed out until the wee hours of the morning drinking cheap draught beer and sharing stories and memories of our time there, as well as our experiences when we got home. “It was just so….epic, for reasons I can’t really explain” my friend would say multiple times throughout the evening, and I understood her. The night was cathartic, and I left feeling like I wasn’t alone in having a hard time readjusting. 

I doubt most of my Canadian friends will ever experience fish head on plantains…

More recently, since returning from a 5 week adventure travel excursion to East Africa, my coworkers, friends and family have all emphatically asked to see my pictures and quizzed me on what were my highlights to the point that their interest surprised me. I was expecting the nonchalance that the study participants experienced, but instead received genuine, earnest interest. That being said, I don’t bring it up in every conversation even though it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in my life recently, and I always make sure to ask questions about what is new and exciting in the person’s life who I may be talking to. 

Finally, while it might be true that if you’re travelling so that you can be the most exciting, adventurous, and cultured person around, you may be disappointed if you don’t get an enormous amount of attention once you return home. But if you’re travelling for the many other reasons there are, and never mind that it is downright good for you, then whether or not your colleagues think you’re a rockstar, should not influence your decision to travel. The takeaway here is: travel is for you, and no one else. 

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Surviving the Nile on a Kayak at Night

After testing my courage the day prior by trying to kayak through white water rapids on the Nile, I decided that I loved kayaking but wasn’t so sure about the paddling through rapids business. I debated between taking a sunset yoga class and renting a river kayak for a peaceful cruise at dusk. Having these options available to me is yet another reason why the Nile River Explorers camp at Bujagali Falls is such an incredible place.

Philip and I decided to head into Jinja for lunch which meant taking our first boda boda ride. For the uninitiated, boda bodas are motorcycle taxis that every guide book tells you not to take in the introduction because they’re so dangerous, but then tells you that they’re pretty much your only option for getting around in some circumstances. This was the case for getting to Jinja from Bugujali Falls. With a little trepidation, our boda boda driver, also named Philip, told us to step on and took off. I chuckled to myself as I rode between Philip and Philip in a Philip sandwich of sorts.

While we clung on tight, Ugandan Philip told us how he thought the dam had hurt the people of Bujagali, rather than helped. He said that the government had promised that everyone in the village would get electricity, but it was years later and they hadn’t delivered and the electricity was being sold overseas. The dam removed the falls which generated a lot of steady income for locals, since tourists and locals would come to visit the falls and go white water rafting or kayaking year round. He told me that he wanted me to share this story, so I am now, although at the time my heart sunk because I felt like sharing it wouldn’t do much for him.

Once in Jinja, we worked out that he would stay and wait for us for a couple hours and then bring us back. Jinja was a cute small city, with a decent expat culture it seemed, but I think Jinja’s selling feature was it’s shopping. The shops had a lot of the same wares that we saw all over Uganda and Kenya, but for a lot less. The environment is much more relaxed there too since the shop owners won’t immediately go for a hard sell, like we found it to be in Kenya. If you want to bring some East African souvenirs back, I would highly recommend picking them up in Jinja.

Once back at Bujugali, we gave Ugandan Philip a good tip for waiting and asked if he wouldn’t mind posing for a picture with Canadian Philip. He obliged, but couldn’t keep his eyes open for the picture. Must be a Philip thing.

Over here Philips

From there we decided that a rolex with avocado from a street stall and a beer on NRE’s beautiful patio were in order while we decided between sunset yoga and another kayak adventure. While we pondered this, we were joined by this truly beautiful specimen on the patio:

Blue beauty

After some liquid courage in the form of cold Nile Specials, I said that I thought I could do yoga anywhere but could only kayak the Nile on the Nile so Philip and I rented a river kayak for what was supposed to be a late afternoon/early evening cruise.

Heeding our kayak renter’s advice, we set out upstream first and paddled against the current to start our tour. We paddled around islands where birds seemed to be the only inhabitants and to the opposite bank where villagers were washing their laundry and filling up their water buckets. We remarked at how much easier it was to pilot a longer and wider river kayak than a shorter white water one. We never worried about tipping it once and paddling against a gentle river current was very easy compared to a white water rapid.

Not a care in the world a this point.

As dusk began to settle in, we finished the last drops of the Nile Special that we had smuggled on board and set to return. I insisted on trying to get a few shots where our kayak lined up perfectly with the reflection of the setting sun as we paddled back.


Pretty soon, we noticed that the dam was in front of us and we were losing light fast. When we set out, we had not seen the dam at all so something seemed amiss. We asked a couple local fishermen if they knew which way NRE was and they both pointed us toward the dam. We humoured them for a bit until we found a third fisherman who told us to go back the direction we came. Exasperated and somewhat scared, I suggested that we pull the kayak ashore and call the Kayak the Nile. When we got a hold of them, we advised that we were safe but that we weren’t exactly sure how to get back.

Trying to explain where we were on a dark river was next to impossible, so we were told to wait where we were for a rescue boat. Feeling rather silly, we waited sitting perfectly still on a river that yesterday had consumed us both in massive waves, but today in this spot, was as calm as could be. Fireflies started to glow along the shore and frogs began their nightly chorus. The scene was somehow both stressful and serene at once.

We waited for what seemed like a really long time until calling again and being told to follow the music. That sounded easy enough until we paddled closer to it, but it  started to seem like the music was bouncing off the opposite bank which made it difficult to tell where it was coming from. With a few more phone calls and some worried paddling, we finally found our way back to the NRE camp.

As it happens, we had made the classic river sport mistake of  underestimating how much faster we covered the same distance going downstream as we had gone upstream and overshot the camp on the way back. We insisted on giving the staff at Kayak the Nile a tip for their troubles and they kindly reassured us that we weren’t the first to get lost and all that mattered was that we were safe.

While it was stressful to feel temporarily adrift on the longest river in the world, we were in good hands and learned an important lesson that we can carry with us as we progress in improving our kayaking skills. I think that the Zen in this experience is learning to accept that you’re learning which means you will make mistakes. Ambitious, adventurous types like myself and Philip want to excel at everything right away but that is rarely possible and there is an opportunity to learn in almost every experience.

Our time at NRE and Kayak the Nile was brief and at times, harried (our own doing not theirs), but it was amazing enough to inspire us to continue kayaking and recommend Nile River Explorers and Kayak the Nile to anyone looking to kayak or go rafting in a truly beautiful spot. I know I hope to be back some day. 

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Surviving the Nile on Kayak

I recently returned from a 5 week adventure in East Africa and people are constantly asking me what was the most memorable part of the experience. I struggle to answer it because the whole trip was amazing but also because travel is so personal.

What may have made the top of my list may not have been some one else’s idea of a good time. If I answer this question as honestly as possible, my most vivid memory is of white water kayaking on the world’s longest river. The first thing that comes to my mind is of course, the one that I have no pictures of. It is also the only time I have (somewhat intentionally) done something truly GoPro worthy (more on that later).

To get to Bujugali Falls from Kampala, my partner Philip and I took the free shuttle offered by Nile Rivers Explorers from Nakumatt Oasis Mall. The setting at Bujagali near Jinja, Uganda was exceptionally beautiful for learning to kayak and because the river is damned at that section, it is also very deep. This means that it is possible to attempt manoeuvring rapids on the river after very little instruction. My experience with kayaking is limited, so Philip and I were thrilled to be the only two people in the class that day. We received a full morning of one on one instruction from the knowledgeable and enthusiastic instructors at Kayak The Nile. I hoped to stay dry for at least some of the morning, but to my chagrin the lesson began with us practising an emergency underwater exit which would come in very handy later on.

People getting a lesson the day after ours. 

We spent the rest of the morning practising strokes and turns and a few more emergency exits for good measure. Despite the instructor’s reassurance that I was picking it up very quickly, I was extremely nervous to go through the rapids on a kayak. Despite having worked up an appetite by paddling the calmer waters on the Nile, the lump in my stomach made eating lunch difficult. All the same, I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the setting, and the excitement of learning a new sport.

Oh sure, the Nile looks calm here. 
After lunch we drove about 20 minutes to our launch point and carried the kayaks down to the water and put in. We were not on the river long when the first set of class 3 rapids appeared on the horizon. The instructor told us where to paddle to avoid the worst of the waves but my kayak seemed to head straight for them despite my furious strokes. I approached the first wave that was at least twice as tall as me and was sucked straight up it by its awesome force. It all happened so fast but it felt like it was going in slow motion and at one point me and my kayak were vertical and I was paddling into the air. Finally the wave tipped me over its crest and I landed with a thud in the wake. I paused for a moment amazed that I was still upright and resumed paddling furiously.
I like to think I looked like this
I was 3/4 of the way through the rapids when suddenly I flipped upside down and found myself head first in a raging river. It took me a second to remember what the emergency exit procedure was and I reached back overhead first for a way out before remembering that I needed to grab my spray skirt in front. One good tug and I was pushed up to the surface for the most welcome gulp of fresh air.

The safety kayaker helped me back into my kayak and handed me my paddle which I gripped with shaky hands. The instructor paddled over and said “you going over that massive wave was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen!” and I so wished that I had been wearing a GoPro. “Two more sets of rapid to go” he added. The knot in my stomach tightened.
But it was probably more like this. 

The second set of rapids had a less foreboding look than the first set but there was an eddy I was advised to avoid. Naturally, I ended up right there. The safety kayaker instructed me to paddle fast and hard to get out of it which I miraculously did without flipping (the instructor later informed me that most people who go in the eddy flip).  By the 3/4 way through the rapids mark however, I started losing steam and was flipped again.

Getting out of the kayak underwater was easier this time, but as I struggled to crawl back in the kayak the instructor tried to reassure me by saying “kayaking is not a graceful sport.” He then instructed me try to maintain more power through the next set of rapids which was the “easiest.”

For those of you have never white water kayaked before, paddling in the rapids takes a lot of strength. You really have to give it your all, funny faces and grunting included. So by the third set, I was getting really tired and flipped again at the 3/4 mark. By this time though, I managed to hang onto my paddle while going over and the instructor remarked that I was getting very good at getting back in my kayak. Maybe even with grace? I wouldn’t go that far. 

Meanwhile I should add, Philip who curiously is nicknamed “Flip”, only flipped once in the 3 rapids and still had enough steam to practice edging in an eddy while I waited exhausted by some reeds.

The rest of the journey down the Nile was a peaceful float which allowed me to regain some composure. Even as I write this, I remember the panic I felt as I was being tossed around in the river current and the disappointment of not even making it through one set without flipping. But I also remember the sheer exhilaration of those moments before and after my flips, as well as the blissful feeling of the sun beating down on my face as we gently floated to our pull out site.

While I learned that I need to work on my upper body strength before attempting to kayak through more white water rapids, I also am proud of myself for having tried something new and somewhat scary.

The whole day translated into an epic, memorable adventure and I would recommend a day at Kayak the Nile to any thrill seeking travellers out there. Although, you may want to make sure you pay attention to the emergency exit procedure at the beginning of the lesson!
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I started this blog to remember the incredible moments that my partner Philip and I experience both here and abroad and to share how we made them happen.

“Life isn’t a matter of milestones, but of moments.” – Rose Kennedy 

I’ve written about those staggering, resolve-testing and awe-inspiring moments before while trying to make a home in Mali. There, I discovered that collecting truly incredible moments doesn’t necessarily have to mean checking off items on your bucket list or travelling to the most exciting locales to do the thing the guide books told you to do.  Rather, there is beauty and awe in simply looking at your surroundings with an inquisitive and appreciative eye. In doing so, lessons are better learned, new places and their people are more understood, and those moments you experience will stay with you for life. They will become part of your Zen and we could all use a little more Zen in our lives.

So what is Zen? I don’t really know, and that’s ok. I like to guess at what it is and to me Zen is losing yourself in the moment. It is slowing down enough to be present in the here and now and appreciate what the world is offering you. I believe that nowhere is this easier than when encountering a new place or experience for the first time. With an open mind and a mindset in the present, truly extraordinary moments will occur.

Believe it or not, I felt pretty Zen during this sunrise on Lake Bunyonyi. 

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