Patriot Games

If you haven’t seen Amazon’s new series Patriot, you’re missing out. Seriously. The slow-burning dark comedy about an intelligence agent posing as an engineer in Milwaukee to prevent a nuclear Iran involves confessional neo-folk, Brazilian jiu jitsu and rock paper scissors, along with a healthy dose of ennui. It’s an international thriller stuck in a middle-American—and existential—malaise.

Across the board, the acting is excellent, with lead work done by the relatively unknown Michael Dorman, whose measured deadpan and sad stare are perfect—to say he’s sleepwalking is a high compliment. More familiar faces appear as well, with Michael Chernus of Orange is the New Black once again playing a goofy brother, and Kurtwood Smith, TV’s forever-dad Red Foreman, playing… well, a stern, gruff authority figure. But there are hidden depths to him as well, and they are carefully revealed with great pathos.

Easily the best parts of the show are the direction and camerawork, with series creator and writer Steve Conrad helming most episodes, and cinematography by Jim Whitaker. Their work is among some of the best being done on TV, reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s masterfully shot The Knick. Using shallow focus to highlight elements throughout scenes, the camera directs the the eye beautifully, shifting between layers of resonance and revealing knowledge slowly as the characters navigate a world where they only see a few of the facts.

Shots are gorgeous and often unconventionally framed: the lead enclosed by circles of concrete pipes as he contemplates, or spotted form a bird’s eye view. There’s a hint of Wes Anderson in the often symmetrical shots, but the show isn’t afraid to load them in a lopsided manner, the actors and their work concentrated to the sides. The show breathes deep and slow, like in the golden hours of a lake during a duck hunt, then gasps in shock when unexpected violence flares up quickly and hilariously. Characters walk into long shots from the far distance, working their way into focus, and the audience realizes something is coming, even if they aren’t quite sure what it is.

Themes in Patriot ripple out, and themes of violence and conscience, of security, of fathers and sons and of the very lonely come around like circles. With brief looks into the lives of these characters, we see how everything connects, subtly, slowly, and how it is all bigger than we are, our struggles and daily triumphs framed in by much greater forces, pulling into and away from our lives, and the finish line constantly moving as we simply try to go from A to B.

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Student Walkout

Hundreds of New York students walked out of their schools on Tuesday in protest of Trump’s immigration ban. Braving the rain to rally in Foley Square, the students toted anti-Trump and pro-immigrant banners, speaking out against the ban and the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary.

New York City Public Advocate Leticia James spoke at the event, telling the gathered students, “This is a learning space. This is a classroom. This is a lesson in civic history.”

The protest was organized by 17-year-old Hebh Jamal, a Palestinian-American from the Bronx, and cosponsored by the New York Immigration Coalition, the Arab American Association of New York, and MPower Change.

Once the speakers concluded, James marched up the block with student leaders behind a banner from the New York Immigration Coalition, trailed by youth waving the large, rainbow flag of the LGBTQ community. The crowd reached the front of the New York Citizenship and Immigration Services building where they stopped to continue chanting.

Across the street, young activists faced off in a heated debate with a middle-aged man who accused them of being brainwashed by the media. The dissenter, conflating the democratic socialist rhetoric of Bernie Sanders’ campaign with that of National Socialism, declared the students Nazis.

The protest continued without major incident in front of the NYCIS, confined by police barricades, until momentum flagged and the students dispersed. Of all the signs carried by students at the march, perhaps the most poignant—and promising—was the one reminding passers-by that these kids would be voting in 2020.

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Women’s March on Washington

On January 20th, Donald Trump was inaugurated. The next day, more than 500,000 women and men marched on Washington, D.C., demonstrating in protest. I drove down from Delaware at 5 AM. My sister flew out from California with friends. We met up and marched and I took some pictures on the way.

It’s hard to believe how much is happening so quickly. The news is distressing to the point of causing anxiety in many Americans. A lot of people don’t know what to do. What victories there are for the opposition seem small. But it’s important to remember that resisting this presidency started on the first day, with half a million people in D.C. alone, and others marching together across the world.

These big numbers and large groups are important, but it is individuals that can and do make the difference. I shot faces in the crowd during the march to remember that: here are some of the people who are resisting.

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Amani

In late October, I once again travelled from Dar es Salaam to Tanga, my favorite upcountry destination in Tanzania. This time, however, it wasn’t to chill out on the beach, boat to the sandbar, or eat the delicious coastal cooking. Well, maybe the last part a little…

The goal of my weekend trip was to visit Amani Nature Reserve with my friend Adam as he resupplied village medical workers at a clinic up above the Amani chai farms. I was riding along with the Medicine Education Africa (MEA) crew, who train rural village health workers in Tanga, then assist them with medical supplies during the course of their work. I was coming to take photos of their work and get some time behind the camera during a trip that’s been light on photography—a welcome opportunity.

In the morning, I walked to the the MEA office and met the team. Feeling a little like the observer, I helped them load medical supplies on top of the Land Cruiser, figuring I’d start taking pictures once we were up there. “Up there” meant a 2+ hour drive out of Tanga and into the mountains, but it was great: I had a friend to catch up as we bounced around on the dirt roads, and the the views of the nature reserve were spectacular.

We crossed into Amani without paying the usual fees—we’re delivering medical supplies, after all—and wound up the mountain through switchbacks upon switchbacks, hemmed in by dense, untouched jungle. It was gorgeous and cool, with rivers running by and the sun creeping through the foliage. Suddenly, we broke out of the lush reserve and into the cultivated highlands: fields upon fields of chai, the short, dark green bushes topped with neon new growth, rolling up impossible inclines and across the tops of the mountains, our road a bright red clay slash through the vivid oceans of tea.

As beautiful as it was, we had somewhere to be, and the pictures that follow were the real focus of my trip:

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The small clinic where MEA meets to resupply workers is surrounded by tea plants

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MEA staff and local healthcare workers unloading supplies

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Moving supplies

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Each worker’s books are checked against the record, then their old supplies are returned

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Workers then repack their bags with fresh supplies before returning to their villages

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Wait times are long, but provide an outlet for catching up between rural workers

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Some of the village health workers with MEA are quite young, but contribute in a major way to malaria prevention in their communities

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As a brief shower breaks out, MEA staff works away at keeping their meticulous records

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A baby plays with empty soda bottles as her mother waits to pick up her medical supplies

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After almost two hours, the long line has dwindled to the last few workers

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Juma waits as the last workers pick up their supplies

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A clinic worker returns home on foot

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The road home

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Adam holds leftover supplies as we pack up to leave

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Tying down the load for a trip back down the mountain

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The MEA team along with some local healthcare workers

 

After a successful day, all that was left was a few hours trip down the mountain, buying some tea from a local shop owner to bring back as gifts, and an evening discussing politics at the bar in Tanga—but that’s a story for another post…

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Custom Fitted

Sometimes, Westerners traveling to Africa forget that you can actually buy things here. I know I did when I first left for Peace Corps—thinking I needed to come with a two year supply of everything. People just visiting forget that people actually live here, so you can get everything you need. Sure, some of it might be cheap Chinese knock offs—ok, most of it might be cheap Chinese knock offs—but it’s certainly here. Clothes and shoes are everywhere, from secondhand to brand new, and at just about every price point. There’s some flashy stuff, there’s fun throw-backs and jerseys from your college or local sports franchise, but the best thing really is the preponderance of tailors. In the States, we throw out instead of repair. Maybe maybe for some major things we’ll go in for the fix, but most people don’t bother in our consumer culture of planned obsolescence and disposability. But here in Tanzania, you fix things. Then you fix them again. Then you jury-rig them until they break a final time, then you sell the parts to someone who can do something with them.

Same goes for clothes, so tailors and seamstresses are everywhere. I’ve had numerous repairs made over the years, usually from snagging pants on the endless supply of sharp metal edges that cover every form of crowded public transportation. It’s pretty amazing to see some old babu on the street with an ancient foot pedal sewing machine take a pair of jeans, slit out the seams with a safety razor, repair a hole, then put ‘em back together good as new in the span of about 5 minutes—all for about 50 cents.

But best of all is getting custom clothes made. Picking out some kitenge and letting your favorite tailor run wild, making something (literally) whole cloth. Down in Njombe, we had Geoffrey, perhaps the most dapper man in Tanzania, ironing away in his little shop while wearing a three-piece suit. He could turn out the menswear with the best of ‘em, specializing in shuka long sleeves for the crew in the cold weather, but also putting together some gorgeous suits on occasion. He was good, but unfortunately the steady supply of wazungu clientele started to go to his head and prices started to rise… Luckily, I was already on my way out of Njombe as the giant influx of volunteers started, and I had what clothes I wanted.

Here in Dar es Salaam, I lived a year without really seeing a tailor, usually cycling the same bland polos and button ups throughout the week at the office. I got my fashion fix blogging about crazy-expensive high-fashion pieces and menswear on a jokearound tumblr I ran in the evenings. It was a fun outlet to look at things I like but couldn’t afford, but my going out wear was still a steady rotation of black tees. Coming back in 2016, however, I had a goal in mind: getting some good kitenge shirts made. I needed some new clothes anyway, and when looking at a bunch of bland polos selling for $19.99 at Macy’s, I realized I could get some dope, custom shirts made in TZ for about half that price. Done and done.

When I first got back, I headed to Kariakoo early on to scope some fabric. Big mistake. Too many people, too many choices, too much stimulation early in my trip back. After taking a weeklong trip up to Tanga, however, I came back with a couple bolts of cloth I liked and high hopes. I was still in need of a tailor, but walking the streets of Upanga one early evening, I noticed a nondescript building with clothes outside and a promising message painted on the front: “Tunashona nguo za aina zote” or “We make clothes of all kinds.” I filed it away, and after giving my cloth a preliminary wash—a lot of dye comes out of Tanzanian cloth—I made my way back last week, one of my favorite short-sleeve button-ups and my least favorite bolt of cloth in tow. I figured I’d use the shirt as an example, and if their work was sub-par, at least I only used some mediocre cloth to find out.

The place was crammed with cloth, sewing machines and dudes working. It was a great sign. I asked if they made mens’ clothes and they assured me that they did—pants and shirts, dude. A shirt would be 15,000 shillings, or about $7. Very cool. City prices, but still cool. I showed them the shirt I liked and the main guy started taking measurements while I sat and listened to the radio with the other two. It was a screed against popular Western artists like Rhianna, Snoop Dogg and Michael Jackson, featuring very liberal—aka wildly inaccurate—reading of their lyrics and twisted reasoning allowing that they were in fact Freemasons and members of the Church of Satan. I couldn’t help but laugh, which got the whole crew laughing, and I helped correctly interpret some of the lyrics. I assured everyone that they weren’t Satanists, just singers, but I could see they remained unconvinced. I was loving it regardless. I got measured up as well, and talked details with the head tailor: short sleeves or long, whether I cuffed them, would I tuck in the tails or wear them out, did I want a pocket, band collar or traditional, and on and on. I communicated my desires the best I could and figured he got it pretty well. It was a $2 bolt of cloth I was risking, so I figured I’d let him rock and see what came of it. I was told to come back in two days—quick work, and perfect, because that meant Friday, and Friday means going out. This time it’d be with a dope new shirt on.

When Friday finally came around, I made the mid-afternoon trek down to the tailor shop while the group chat buzzed with news of open bars and cool places to be. I hope the shirt would be ready because deadlines aren’t exactly firm out here in East Africa. When I got to the shop, I was stoked to see my shirt was done! Except—wait, we sent the kid out to get buttons. It’s done, just no buttons. Have a seat. No, really, he’s on his way. Try it on. Imagine the buttons. It’s a nice shirt, no? It was a nice shirt, they did a bang-up job. I posted up to wait, idly scanning Twitter and WhatsApp, but also talking to the guys in the shop as they chugged away on their sewing machines, making pillowcases and dresses and all manner of cloth goods. It wasn’t a bad scene for a lazy afternoon, and we made the usual small talk: who are you, where are you from, what do you do, what are all your thoughts on god, why aren’t you married—you know, light stuff. Eventually, the kid made it back with buttons and they went on quickest, the mzee in the back ironed and folded the shirt about eight times and I was out the door.

It’s a nice shirt. I got a lot of compliments that night. The button stance was a little low so rocking it open exposed the tank top undershirt and I got my Marlon Brando on. Or something to that effect. We hit the open bar and a trendy art gallery and a backyard concert and I looked popping the whole time. I can’t wait to rock it in the States. Tomorrow, I’m headed back to Tanga briefly and I’ll be looking for more good fabric. I mean, I’ve already dropped some more off at the shop today, and there’ll be a new shirt waiting next Friday, but I’ve got a feeling it won’t be the last.

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Trivial Pursuits

Aside from drinking, it seems to me that expats play a lot of games. I went to bingo a while back, it was pretty lit. Last night, I went to trivia.

It turns out, Triniti the nightclub is actually Triniti the bar and restaurant and guesthouse like 99% of the time. Apparently, I ain’t living right, because I only knew it as the former. Many of my RPCV friends feel the same way—it’s a bit embarrassing when some surprised expat says, “Hey, did you know this place is a club on the weekends?” and you’re out here thinking, “Holy hell, this place looks way different in the light of day!”

Every other week, Trinity hosts trivia night—a good pub quiz being a staple the world around, it seems. We put together a bro-centric team of mostly Americans (and one Italian!) and got ready to rumble. The theme was “religion” and our group turned out to be 100% Catholics in various stages of lapsing. What we lacked in breadth of religious experience, we’d hopefully make up for in depth of parochial schooling.

My buddy and I were naturally running late, because Tanzania time, but we lucked out: the projector was on the fritz. Classic developing world attempt to do something Western and running into the limitations of technology. While various host-looking types fumbled around with connections and a giant blue screen of no-input, we ordered some overpriced local beers and started thinking of a team name—there’s a prize for best name. All Dawgs Go To Heaven was a close call, and The Freemasons a wink at Tanzanian superstitions regarding the alleged Church of Satan, but we ended up calling ourselves Konyagi Communion. (Look it up.)

While projector cords were swapped out, we talked about our days and checked out the competition: ten teams of 4-6, almost entirely expats. Some old, some young, some we recognized from either work or just the impossibly small Western community that exists in the incredibly large city of Dar es Salaam. We were on the lookout for a group of very loud Canadians a friend of ours knew, but never determined which team it was—so many stereotypical obnoxious Canadians abroad to choose from, eh?

Perhaps the best part of waiting was our MC, a gray-haired Brit sliding past middle-age, who tried his hand at a few jokes. Real groaners, poorly delivered, getting nothing but dead silence. Like, bad. In some way, my heart went out to the guy, but it was almost impressive how bad he was bombing. Just straight up crickets. Embarrassing, uncomfortable, then finally coming full circle to being hilarious in it’s own way. I could’ve drank beers and not laughed all night with the boys, but finally the host team said forget the projector and we were underway. Big shout outs to the sponsors were taken care of as we tuned out, and then it was game time.

The proceedings would’ve moved rather quickly, but we were quickly bogged down by about half the questions being based on pictures and us being without a projector. Our intrepid host and his lovely assistant decided to instead run around the crowd, one armed with an iPad, the other awkwardly holding up a laptop, showing off the video clues. The questions ranged across cultures and religions, a mix of straightforward and pretty tricky—we felt we were in the running most of the time, though took some hits in Round 2. We had to argue the legitimacy of “Odin” vs. “Woden” as the name of the god for whom Wednesday was named, and our buddy who served in Peru got up in arms over confusion over the Aztec and Mayan calendars—that one wasn’t resolved. The hosts were lovely, but a little unable to flex their judgement. Also, they didn’t know much about religion. I had to patiently explain, after a visual clue, that our incorrect answer of “censer” was in fact a more accurate rendering of the answer they were looking for, “incense burner.” But they did their level best, and arguing points is an important part of such trivial pursuits, so we were happy.

At the end of it all, a last minute reshuffle in points bumped us up into tied for second, which meant a paper airplane fly-off: our team won, and received day-passes to the über-expensive Coliseum Gym in town, which was pretty cool. We were kinda bummed we missed out on either the first prize—a case of beer—or the third prize—a bunch of wine—but it’s probably for the best. And due to a silly “one prize per team” ruling, coming in second we were no longer eligible for best name! Luckily, the MC made a point of calling those who ended up winning “second best” more than a couple times and my ego was stroked. Konyagi Communion will always be #1 in our hearts!

The first-place team has apparently been rolling through trivia for 3.5 years now—I let them know that in two weeks, we’d be back and coming for the crown. Then, in typical expat fashion, we mostly talked about being from the West Coast and which part of which state and what’s better and damn, I miss Mexican food and cheese and stuff. It was a great time—prizes and egos aside, it was really fun to kick it with the boys and BS for the night. While it wound down, we filtered out into the crowd, greeting friends we had seen across the room and making introductions of our friends, the small expat community once again tightening its interconnected web. I like trivia. I’m coming back. I want to win. But mostly, I want to be in that competitive, semi-intellectual space that exists for people that are bad at regular sports. I want points on the board.

In the meantime, it’s work work work and maybe some play this weekend. There’s a good chance we’ll go out dancing with the crew and wind up at Triniti—the nightclub edition. I can’t wait to lean in to close to someone against the music, clutching an overpriced beer and smelling like No-Bite, to shout in their ear the stunning revelation of “Hey, did you know this club is a restaurant most the time? Yeah, with trivia!”

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Kahawa

I love coffee. I’ll allow a moment for that unique personality quirk of mine to cease blowing your mind. But really, I do. I like it hot. I like it cold. I rarely like it with cream or sugar, but I’ll make an exception from time to time. And even more than the taste of it or the effect it brings, I like the social concept of coffee. Let’s get a coffee. Wanna do coffee? I’ll be at the coffeeshop. That kind of thing.

In Tanzania, it’s not so much for the coffeeshops. There’s a handful of bougie expat joints that make a decent cappuccino here in Dar es Salaam, but what do I really want with that? Ok, maybe the AC and the wifi and the unfettered space where people mostly mind their business and do work, but I digress. There are also plenty of mid-tier mgahawas, the brick and mortar shops in cities that’ll happily overcharge you for a cup of hot milk and access to their tin of instant coffee. Occasionally, I’ll bite. But what I’m really talking about is grabbing a seat on a rickety bench, or a step or a rock or a tire, and grabbing a cup of kahawa.

A lot depends on where you are—everyone has their favorite spots—but it ultimately comes down to a very similar setup: a charcoal jiko heating up an aluminum kettle filled with fine-ground cowboy coffee and water, a small bucket of rinsewater filled with ceramic cups, and a tupperware of kashata. And it’s everything.

There’s a wide variety of places to grab a cup, but there’s mainly two methods for distribution. There’s the roaming kijana method, where kids from about 12 to their early 20s walk the streets of cities, carrying a bare-bones birdcage contraption that holds their coffee kettle about a couple of coals on a small plate, no more than some scrap metal and wires. In their off-hand is the bucket of cups and a tupperware of the peanut candy known as kashata. With no hand free to jingle the coins or broken tiles in the ubiquitous shhhkkkkt shhhhkkkkt shhhkkkkt that announces the presence of other street vendors, they seem almost to be at a disadvantage. Then again, unlike the goods offered by the peanut-cigarette-candy-gum slangin’ boys that ply the streets with them, people are really really looking for coffee. Same as it ever was.

It’s easy enough to hit ‘em with the eye contact and eyebrow raise to have ‘em post up and start serving. Often though, you’ll come upon someone already partaking in coffee—gate guards, security guards, bored salesmen, car washers and parking attendants are usually downing coffee and amenable to a coffee-seeking compatriot. Even when there’s no steps to sit on or shade to squat under, most are happy enough to make the sale even roadside and just hang around while you drink standing.

Then of course, there are the semi-permanent setups. These consist of a few basic benches in some corner or spot in town run by a regular proprietor, usually a mid-to-late twenties dude, operating on either an am or pm schedule. Some favorites include: Juma’s spot in the Iringa bus stand, the yoga-practicing bro in the Songea alley, my guy’s spot outside the duka on Kisutu Street in Dar, the table across the road from the football field in Korogwe, and most recently, the corner of Kalenga and Malik in Upanga, just down from Muhimbili Hospital.

Here, it’s more of a social moment. Going for coffee on the corner. Sitting, politicking. Talking a whole lot of trash about football. That’s probably most of it, really. But a decent amount of discussion about local politics and some of the more major international news will come up. A lot of times, it’s the same guys every morning or evening—guys that work in the area, or those on their way to work or home, stopping off like usual for some coffee. That definitely breeds a hierarchy and an ongoing system of trash talking that it’s fun to decipher. Depending on one’s level of Swahili, it’s easy enough to jump in and talk that talk, and sometimes people will quite pointedly turn the conversation to mzungu subjects, directing questions your way. But often enough it’s fine to just sit, listen, and sip, exchanging the bare minimum with the guy manning the kettles—niongeze another one, or basi that’s enough.

There’s regional differences, too. Some places just have coffee, others have a kettle of tangawizi, a strong ginger and sugar concoction that’ll clear your nostrils right out, believe you me. It’s delicious on its own or mixed 50/50 with the coffee. Day to day, you’ll also see little squeeze bottles of powdered ginger with the guys walking the streets, puffing little plumes of ginger into the cups prior to coffee, if you so desire. One of my favorite variations is in the kashata, which is basically peanuts on their way to brittle, but not quite. Often in Dar it’s little bricks of peanuts, held together with some sugary binding, perfect for dipping in your coffee, while up the coast, it’s a softer, crumbly candy that it’s entirely possible to eat about a thousand pieces of.

The coffee itself is usually strong, but served in small enough cups that 3-4 is perfectly acceptable in a sitting. Fans of single origins roasts are out of luck, here, as most of the guys get bulk roasted coffee near the local market and it can be rather mix and match. It’s all Tanzanian, though, and a couple of the guys I’ve talked to have been able to trace the provenance of their batches to Mbeya or Lushoto, two big coffee regions, which is kinda cool if you’re into that kind of thing. Most the time, I’m less focused on conversating and more worried about the gentle three finger grip that’s required to to perch the tiny cups of insanely hot coffee on the edges of your fingers, which are hopefully tough enough to take the heat, while managing not to spill any of the burning hot deliciousness over the edge of the cup, which is usually filled precariously close to the brim. Any spilling hurts like heck, and usually leads to more movement, and more spilling, not to mention it makes you look like the rankest of amateurs, so care must be taken to go full Zen-mode and sublimate any pain into stillness, accepting it as a small price to be paid for such great coffee. And speaking of small price: 100 shillings per cup has been the rate since time immemorial. That’s 5 cents. Take that, Starbucks! My morning ritual of 3 cups and 2 pieces of kashata comes out to a quarter. Rinse repeat in the evening and it’s still an amazing deal. Speaking of which… I’m outta here. Gotta get some coffee.

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