Updated: March 5th, 2019Mexico, next-door neighbor that it is, has always been a mystery to me. I feel like you never hear about Mexico in terms of being a popular travel destination—at least, not after the age of 20 when your dreams of crashing MTV Spring Break have come and gone like a round of tequila shooters.
Is it because of the plethora of negative stereotypes about Mexico? Probably. If I were to base my assumptions about Mexico on mainstream media and shit-starters who’ve never actually visited the country, I could’ve expected during my trip to: be kidnapped by drug cartels, be killed by drug cartels, become life-threateningly ill (somehow because of the drug cartels), get robbed, be forced into a life of mariachi, and something to do with El Chapo +/- Sean Penn. But while I never put stock in a destination’s negative stereotypes, the pleasures of Mexico still managed to surprise me.
Despite knowing very little about Mexico, other than the fact that no mariachi band in their right mind would ever want me as a member, I made the somewhat impromptu decision to visit after a decade-long obsession with Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead). Without caring how cliché I sound, Mexico took me completely by storm and has since become one of my favorite countries. It impressed me; it kept me on my toes; and at times it had me like “Huh??” “Wut!?” and “Ay dios mio!”. Here are 17 of the many things that shocked me in Mexico.
01 | HOW SERIOUSLY THE ALTITUDE AFFECTED ME
For the first 34 years of my life (that’s all of them btw), altitude has been a non-issue. I mean, I know what it is; I’ve heard of it before; they talk about it on airplanes after all. But just like with male pattern baldness or breastfeeding-related concerns, I thought ‘altitude’ didn’t apply to me so I swept it under the rug like you would a sex dream about your boss.
I’ve lived my entire life no more than 337 feet above sea level. Three hundred and thirty seven feet! Sneak up on me in the dark and you’ll see me jump higher than that. And that’s in flat-as-a-tortilla Memphis, Tennessee. With an elevation in Boston of 141 feet and just 30 feet in Clearwater, Florida, I’ve been absolutely spoiled with oxygen my whole life. Just diving into oxygen and back-stroking around in it like Scrooge McDuck.
Mexico City is, by far, the highest place I’ve ever travelled and that statement has nothing to do with the drug cartels. Everyone, including my husband, kept saying, “Well what about Switzerland? You’ve climbed the Swiss Alps!” Okay, y’all gots to chill with that. Sure, Switzerland is higher than the Florida Gulf Coast but we ain’t talkin’ no Mt. Everest here. The elevation of Mexico City is 7,382’ above sea level. Gimmelwald, Switzerland is a mere 4,485’. And though I took my hiking experience and my fitness level into consideration, my lungs (and other parts) were in no way prepared for my trip to Mexico.
It wasn’t until right before my trip that I learned “altitude sickness” is both a thing and a concern. Up until this point my main concern had been how to pack a top hat in a carry-on. (A post for another day.) Basically, altitude sickness is a combination of symptoms you experience when traveling to high elevations—all due to the lowered oxygen levels at higher barometric pressures. So, the higher up you go, the less oxygen there is in the air and therefore your brain. It must be how Katy Perry feels all the time.
Typical symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea + vomiting, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, problems falling asleep, and, because it’s WebMD I’m reading, coma and death. I suffered all of these except nausea (THANK GOD) and sleep issues because I was one exhausted gringa. And death because obviously.
I landed in Mexico City with a headache pounding like Rocky Balboa in a meat locker that lasted until the next day. I definitely felt “off” for the first couple of hours but chalked it up to just being tired from an early wakeup call and back-to-back flights. It wasn’t until we’d dropped off our bags and started making our way through Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Forest), heading up to Chapultepec Castle, that I realized what was happening. “Yup, here it comes. Definitely a coma.”
I had to stop every ten feet or so to catch my breath and even that was work. Yes—breathing was work. And not like blogging work, like the movers you higher when you, well, move work. I had to focus on taking only deep breaths and I couldn’t take them deep enough anyway. (Is this how smokers feel on the reg? Y’all should really quit smoking like yesterday.) Every step higher was agony—my head pounded, my heart pounded, I pounded (water, that is).
Besides my complete inability to breathe, there was a whole slew of other stuff going on. I felt simultaneously shit-faced and like I was having a stroke. The earth spun; I felt dizzy and light-headed; I would turn my head and what I was looking at would take a few seconds to even register; and I was straight-up slurring all my words together. You know when you stand up too fast and all the blood rushes to your head? And you can’t see things and you feel dizzy and your head hurts? That’s how I felt… non-stop for an entire day. It was at that point I said, “Nope! I’m not gonna die today WebMD!”
I ended up taking it easy my whole first day in Mexico (so not my travel style) and by the next day most of the symptoms were gone. I still had a hard time walking more than 30 seconds without stopping to rest but the headaches, extreme fatigue, and general vertigo were gone. By the third day it was smooth sailing… 7,000+ feet above the sea.
02 | ALL THAT COLOR
Before I went to Mexico, I envisioned a lot of brown. Brown buildings and the dirt roads that lead up to them, brown food, brown pyramids, brown countrysides and the brown donkeys that plow them. In reality, Mexico is one of the most insanely colorful places I’ve ever seen! Also in reality, most of the donkeys I saw were gray.
One of the major things that shocked me in Mexico was how nothing was devoid of bright, cheerful colors. The architecture, every home, business, and highway underpass, the markets, the hotel rooms, the luchador body paint, every inch exploding in color. However, there’s no doubt that Dia de Muertos significantly contributed to this phenomenon. Every street corner, town square, church, hallway, museum, eatery, and random tree was covered in bright flowers, banners, candles, and ceremonial altars. We saw brightly painted Catrina faces everywhere we went, we paid for things with rainbow-colored money, and even Mexico City’s taxis are Pepto Bismol pink.
03 | HOW FRIENDLY EVERYONE IS
Mexico. Has. The. Nicest. People. On. Earth.
Why hadn’t I heard this before? Why isn’t this Mexico’s most well-known and highly publicized attribute? Can we make this a thing? Like with the Canadians? Maybe phase out that cartel nonsense and work this in instead?
Mexico is my new BFF. Like, everyone in the whole country. I’ve never been to a place with citizens that were so open and welcoming in my life. It was almost over-the-top friendliness, just the way I like it. You been to Tennessee or Texas or Alabama? Yeah, like that. I could smile at random people on the street and they’d greet me right back—not roll their eyes or ignore me completely like at home in Boston. I got in more than a few battles of “No, you go first.” “No, please, after you.” “But I insist, after you.” >only in Spanish<
We had Uber drivers eager to shower us with friendly conversation, travel tips, American music, advice on acceptable amounts to pay for certain things and other ways to avoid getting ripped off as tourists. One day for breakfast we went to a bakery owned by a friend’s family member and ended up spending the whole day with them.
They drove us–more or less perfect strangers–around town, took us to museums (where the security guard let us in for free), bought us beers, and gave us many more recommendations on places to go and things to see. Every restaurant server, street food and market vendor, hotel desk person (what’s the word for that?), bus station employee, and person I bumped into on the street was the absolute nicest.
One frantic night when taxis had completely stopped running to our location and the Uber network was deader than dial-up, I thought for sure we’d be spending the night on park benches and missing our early flight. We hired a pedicab (which is not as luxurious as it sounds, mind you) to take us to a place where we could get a taxi… who then dropped us off in a different middle-of-nowhere (okay, maybe there’s one less-than-absurdly-friendly Mexican).
We found a restaurant that was closing up for the night after a private party and, not only did they let me use their baño (HAAA-llelujah!), one of the party’s guests, upon learning of our predicament from my husband, ordered us an Uber and downright refused to let us give him money. For our one-hour cab ride! At this point I’m borderline crying with gratitude, my husband is literally pushing money onto this man, and our angel, Gabriel, says nothing but how happy he is to be able to help us.
04 | ¿HABLAS INGLÉS? No.
Of all the places I’ve traveled, I encountered fewer people in Mexico that could speak English than in any other country. You know how in Spanish class your teacher refuses to speak anything but Spanish? Yeah, she’s not being a bitch; she’s prepping you for real life, bro.
I expected English out the wazoo in Mexico but I’m not sure why. Maybe because we’re neighbors? Or because in every other country I’ve visited English has been pretty prevalent? Or because that’s what Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase would have me believe? I actually quite enjoy being thrown into situations where no one speaks my language (other than every single day of my life as a Southerner living in New England). It’s challenging and liberating and thrilling but the number of times I received “No.” as an answer to “Hablas Inglés?” is still one of the biggest things that shocked me in Mexico.
However, this wasn’t too much of an issue thanks to my collegiate minor in Spanish, my husband’s time spent working in Latin American countries, my friend Stephanie’s borderline fluency (she lives in Mexico, after all), and the fact that Mexican kindness transcends all language barriers. Blech, that was so sappy I just made a face like I smelled something rotten. Towards my own writing. I’m sorry.
05 | MEXICO ABSOLUTELY KILLS BREAKFAST
Perhaps my shock in this regard is a sign that I’ve done too much traveling in Europe lately. I had forgotten, or had never realized to begin with, that there are other countries out there that value breakfast as much as we Americans do. For the love of God, no more of this croissant and espresso nonsense. I need FOOOOD, real food, heavy caveman lumberjack food, and I need it as soon as I wake up. And Mexico totally gets that.
None of my breakfasts in Mexico came on any plate smaller than a hubcap and I think this is a big part of the connection I feel to the country. You’ve got chilaquiles (or as my husband calls them, “breakfast nachos”), huevos rancheros, enchiladas (yes! It’s a breakfast food!), omelettes, huevos motuleños, and huevos about a thousand other ways. All served with thick meats and a hefty helping of refried beans. Breakfast to wake up both you and your roommates.
The coffee in Mexico is some of the best and those bakeries! Be still my insulin-oversaturated heart!
06 | BEING ASKED IN THE MORNING IF I WANT COFFEE OR CHOCOLATE MILK
At first I was like, “She crazy right? Of course I want coffee! Do I look like I’m seven?” Oh how naïve.
I soon discovered how much of a “thing” drinking chocolate in Mexico is. And this isn’t new. The ancient Aztecs valued chocolate so much they used it as currency. And you know what else they did with it? They drank it in the morning. It’s thick and hearty and, without fully understanding the concept of caffeine, they knew it to be a great source of energy and sustenance.
Where we would rip open a pack of Swiss Miss, mix it with water and nuke it, Mexican hot chocolate is serious business. It can be made with water, milk, or in a variety of more traditional, Aztec-y ways. They call it the Drink of the Gods after all. The Swiss Miss website, on the other hand, says things like, “Cozy up with the classic” and “Indulge with a mug of me-time.” It’s sick how soft we’ve gone as a species. Just sick.
Champurrado is a warm, thick drink made with chocolate, corn flour, and spices like cinnamon or anise. It’s popular during Dia de Muertos and also as a sidecar to a plate of tamales because refried beans for breakfast just isn’t enough of a gut-buster.
Tejate is a cold drink made from toasted corn, fermented cacao beans, cacao flowers, and the seeds of a fruit called “mamey.” It originated, and is most popular, in Oaxaca and, legit, you’ll need buckets, a large fire, a miller, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, and at least two abuelas to make this.
07 | THOSE LOW, LOW PRICES!
There are places you hear about being famously cheap like Thailand and Prague and Mississippi. But Mexico? I hadn’t heard that one. Mexico was so affordable I almost felt guilty at how little I was paying. For food, both on the street corners and in nicer restaurants, for accommodation, for transportation, for tickets to watch dudes in spandex duke it out, for the beers you absolutely need in order to watch the aforementioned, you name it. For reference, I spent about three times as much on my five days in Cincinnati, Ohio this year than I did on my five days in Mexico (including airfare).
Upon arriving in Mexico City, we took an Uber to our hotel in the Condesa neighborhood. This one-hour trip across the city cost us only $8 USD. That same journey here in Boston would have been about $100 + some crap about a non-negotiable airport pickup fee. And that was probably the most expensive Uber we took all week (minus the one we didn’t pay for). The seven-hour bus ride on Mexico’s (really nice) ADO bus system ran us less than $20 USD. And on our last night I ordered tuna sashimi because I just didn’t have room for any more heavy Mexican food. I paid $8 USD and ended up with the whole damn tuna.
If you’re in search of a travel destination where you can really stretch your money, MEXICO MEXICO MEXICO!
08 | HOW SAFE I FELT
Regarding Mexico’s unfair reputation as a high crime and dangerous country, the only violence I saw during my time there was in a ring between a couple of guys in Speedos and fluorescent body paint and I’m pretty sure those moves were rehearsed.
My five days in Mexico are without a doubt among the safest I’ve felt while traveling. I’ve felt much less safe in Milan, Brussels, Paris, Rome, and Barcelona—all places I’ve had “ordeals” regarding my personal safety and all places without such grim reputations. In both Mexico City and Oaxaca, I felt very safe. Canada safe.
During my short time in Mexico there was both a terrorist attack in New York City and a mass shooting in Texas. And yet people still question my motives for wanting to travel to a place as “dangerous” as Mexico. There’s no question I feel far less safe here in the United States where anywhere, at any moment, absolute Hell could break loose at the hands of a lone nut-job.
We Uber’ed everywhere and had only the nicest drivers; we walked the Condesa neighborhood at night with no issues and felt no weird vibes, no one tried to rob me or recruit me for their gang (no one is that hard up); and the whole country seemed to just get along. One thing I did notice was that the police and military presence was staggering. You couldn’t swing a sombrero in Mexico City without hitting some sort of officer (but don’t do that). Cops on every corner, every street, in every square, and riding around in their cop mobiles. Military personnel at the airports and bus stations and driving around town. And not only do they do a great job of making you feel safe, they also give the best directions and always with smiles on their faces.
09 | THE TALENT OF THE LUCHADORES
Speaking of purely imagined violence…
I expected some silliness, some overacting, some stretchy pants, but what I saw was legit talent. And lots o’ stretchy pants indeed. I mean, yeah there was silliness and overacting, but I had no idea how honest-to-God talented luchadores are. These guys are ripped, flexible, limber, and all-around Olympic-caliber gymnasts. I expected to see like, high school wrestling style moves? I don’t really know.
But what I didn’t expect to see was grown men doing triple backflips off a ring rope onto another wrestler. I didn’t expect minute-long choreographed fight sequences that ended with at least one wrestler double axle-ing into the crowd. I didn’t expect men of their size and age to be able to do the things they could with their bodies. While some were young and ripped, others were… I’ll say “less young” and “way more not ripped” but this made no difference. The old, plump, jiggly ones could fly and flip and twist with the best of them.
I also didn’t expect the SHOW (*jazz hands*). The music and lights and strobes and smoke and explosions and air horns and the energy of the crowd were INSANE. I didn’t expect the costumes and set design and for the place to be completely wall-to-wall packed. And I sure as hell didn’t expect to get so wrapped up in it. Screaming and cheering and booing and jumping up and down—who was I?
Now, help me out here. I’ve never seen even a minute of professional wrestling here in the United States (even being from Tennessee). Is what I saw at Arena Mexico anything like ours? Is the WWE a true American treasure I’ve been missing out on? For real though, let me know in the comments–but before you answer, watch this quick compilation of sweet luchador moves ⇣⇣⇣
10 | THE THINGS I SAW IN THE BACKS OF TRUCKS
I’m from the state of Tennessee so the expectation of seeing questionable things in the backs of trucks is not entirely new to me. I mean, how else are you going to transport your entire wedding party in a two-person vehicle? Duh. But Mexico… Mexico takes it to a whole ‘nother level.
A mountain of bones | One afternoon, standing at what has to be Mexico City’s busiest intersection and waiting to cross the street we saw a pickup truck pass by with a mountain of fresh animal carcasses in its truck bed. Bloody rib cages and various other skeletal remains piled high–fresh from what I hope to God was a legitimate butcher shop. And headed to… where? Where does one take a truck-full of bloody rib cages a-plenty?
Used mattresses for sale | …and their salesmen. Over the course of a few days in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, I heard voices blasting from megaphones on nearby streets but couldn’t see the source (or translate the amplified Español). I assumed it was someone touring the neighborhood in pursuit of their political agenda the way I’d seen in many other cities, namely Hill Valley circa 1955. The future is in your hands!
Finally, while waiting in line for our street corner empanadas, the truck I’d been hearing all week drove right past us. It wasn’t, in fact, an attempt to re-elect Mayor Red Thomas but a pickup truck stacked high with obviously used mattresses and dangling with the salesmen trying to pimp ’em. I remember seeing tons of furniture stores in Mexico City in general—one street lined entirely with mattress retailers. Maybe it has something to do with the almost 21 million people who live in CDMX? Is there some kind of mattress shortage that hasn’t yet made international headlines?
Whole chickens on ice | Thanks to an incredibly long red light I was able to see this, point it out to my husband, process it, and get a picture. Whole chickens on ice… in the bed of a truck. Uncovered. I have so many questions. Like are these chickens bound for a restaurant? Or are they going to feed whatever beast gave us all those bloody carcasses? How much of what we ate in Mexico began its journey to us in a truck bed? Do you think one guy was like, “Hey! Let’s start a food truck!” and his friend was like, “Done!”?
11 | MEXICO’S IDEA OF A GOOD BEER SNACK
Yup, grasshoppers. Chapulines actually—a Oaxacan specialty.
They’re harvested from corn fields late spring to early fall, cleaned, left to rest for a couple of days (to get all the poop out, obviously), then cooked. They’re fried and covered with a seasoning made from chile, lime juice, garlic, salt, and various other spices that may or may not be made from worms themselves.
We saw them in heaps covering tables while wandering through the markets in Oaxaca City and my friend Stephanie of the travel blog Joy and Journey (who lives in Mexico) told me they’re apparently a good snack to eat while drinking beer. And since we were about to do just that, I bought a bag from a woman who was quite literally shoving her grasshoppers upon me.
Chapulines are huge in Oaxaca and can be found in both street markets and high-end restaurants. You can find them in tacos, on tlayudas, by the bag like I got, and sitting on your shoulder when you’re wrestling with a moral dilemma. Now, had this been my first insect-as-food encounter, I may have skipped out—they look too much like their original selves to be palatable. But having eaten live termites from a nest in Belize—my gateway bug—these were no big deal.
The chapulines weren’t bad at all. The flavor was unique and definitely spice-y (not spicy). Since they were fried and smothered in seasoning, you’d never know you were eating a grasshopper if you didn’t look at it (until you had to pick one of the legs out of your teeth, that is). Sorry! I’m just trying to get my point across!
12 | THE BUSES ARE ACTUALLY SUPER NICE
Was I basing my assumptions of bus travel in Mexico on the conditions of American Greyhound bus stations? Or on the quality of the cross-country chicken buses in Belize? Oh hell yeah.
And I as SO WRONG. The ADO bus system in Mexico is SO NICE! They offer different classes of buses from basic to platino which I’m pretty sure is Spanish for I’m rich, bitch! These buses have bathrooms, fully reclining seats, HD TVs, wi-fi, air conditioning, more legroom than someone 5’4” tall even knows what to do with, and the nicest employees. They even give you welcome bags with free bottled drinks, headphones, and more. And not only that, they are CHEE-EAP!
13 | THE SHEER SIZE OF MEXICO CITY
As we began our decent into Mexico City International Airport, I raised my window shade and… HOLYSHITAREYOUKIDDINGMERIGHTNOWSDFKJASLDKFJ!? The size of Mexico City had turned me into a blubbering cartoon character–think: every scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I had heard Mexico City was big, but seeing its endless expanse with my own eyes was, forgive me for being trite, MINDBLOWING. Like my head actually felt like it was exploding. (I soon realized that was just the altitude headache growing roots, but still.)
Even from the air, there was no end in sight to the urban sprawl of Mexico City. I know now the greater metropolitan CDMX is home to 21.3 million people (that’s a lot of mattresses) and is the largest city in North America. Yes, bigger than New York City. Yes, Mexico is part of North America. Turns out, it’s actually the 7th largest city in the world behind only cities like Tokyo, Beijing, and Delhi.
I was in too deep a trance to even think about taking a picture but this article shows just how big Mexico City looks from the air. Consider these images before you even think about complaining about your commute.
14 | THAT’LL BE $457.
I had a series of mild heart attacks both while planning for and while traveling in Mexico that had nothing to do with altitude sickness. Newsflash: Mexico writes their peso prices using the same dollar sign we use here in America. So $400 could mean either 400 Mexican Pesos or 400 US Dollars. And when you are planning a trip to a country you’ve never visited, you don’t really know which it is.
For instance, when booking bus tickets from Mexico City to Oaxaca, the price shown was $457. HOLY CRAP! Buses in Mexico are expensive! In actuality, that was $457 Mexican Pesos or $23 USD. Same thing happened when I looked up Lucha Libre tickets. Front row seats are $400! I knew it was popular but damn, that’s insane. Oh, so it’s actually just $20? Ok, we cool.
15 | I NEVER GOT SICK
I don’t really wanna talk about diarrhea on my blog, so I’ll just refer to the act of getting violently sick in Mexico by its more familiar, folklore-ish term, Montezuma’s Revenge.
For whatever reason, it’s a pretty popular assumption that when visiting Mexico, you’re going to get sick at some point. Like so popular that the act has its own nickname. And I don’t mean cough cough—I’m talking becoming gut-wrenching, violently ill. Maybe from drinking the tap water, perhaps from being surrounded by used toilet paper you’re not allowed to flush, or maybe, juuuust maybe, it has something to do with… oh, I don’t know… TRUCK CHICKENS??
I consider myself lucky because I understand getting sick can be part of the standard package of traveling to Mexico. But we were smart—we drank, and brushed our teeth with, only bottled water, made sure our food and utensils were all dry before eating/using, and we washed our hands like mad. As to food preparation and other factors we couldn’t control, sometimes you just have to pray pray pray. But from what we saw, even regarding the street food vendors, our food was only handled responsibly (i.e., food and money were not touched with the same hands, gloves were worn, beds of trucks were hosed down with only boiling water, etc.).
While I knew succumbing to Montezuma’s Revenge was a possibility, I never considered it a probability. Don’t freak out and eat only Activia while you’re in Mexico (you’d be missing out on one of the main reasons of going to Mexico). Just be smart and you won’t have to worry about pulling a Charlotte York.
16 | EVERYONE CARES SO MUCH
Among all the things that shocked me in Mexico, one of the biggest was actually a combination of small, almost indistinguishable things. All of these combined to give me the impression that Mexico actually gives a damn. “Mexico Actually Gives a Damn” wouldn’t be a terrible tourism slogan now that I’m hearing it.
All over Mexico City you see not just trash cans but, instead, a trio of trash cans, recycling bins, and bins for organic material. Bins. For. Organic. Material! The sidewalks are always full of people sweeping in front of their storefronts and on the streets you’ll see (for reasons unknown to me but I’m sure they’re positive) people hosing dirt off the roads. Restaurant service is fantastic and basically the opposite of any given meal in Italy or France. (I’d liken it more to American restaurant service only nicer. And more vigilant. And it’s always an adult serving you.) I’ve got a hundred more examples just like these that show how much pride Mexicans take in their country.
Speaking of Hill Valley circa 1955, one night our Uber driver had to stop for gas. (I know that sentence doesn’t make a bit of sense but hear me out.) We pulled into the station and were immediately surrounded. One guy pumped gas, the other was cleaning windows, and another was putting air in the guy’s tires. Like, gee whiz Beav! Can you believe this?
17 | SEEING VIAGRA BEING SOLD BETWEEN CANDY BARS AND MAGAZINES
Regrettably, I didn’t take a picture of the cute Viagra boxes so instead here’s a picture of a volcano erupting that’s just as fitting.
And yes, I said ‘cute Viagra boxes’. Right there in the Mexico City airport, in Mexico’s version of Hudson News. On the counter between the Life Savers and the 5-Hour Energy. Actually, that’s pretty good product placement if you think about it.
Maybe it’s well known in certain circles that you can get many of our (U.S.) prescription-only drugs over the counter in Mexico, but not in my circle of cat ladies and writers who don’t change out of their pajamas for days on end. And now that I’m reading more about it (google Viagra at your own risk), I’m seeing that heading south to buy certain sickeningly overpriced medications at lower prices is a thing people do. Is this the international drug crisis I keep hearing about? Guys, you’ve got nothing to worry about–it’s just boner pills!
But my first thought: this isn’t over the counter… at a pharmacy. This is the airport convenience store. I guess I just hadn’t fully realized the differences in international drug policies and how something so strictly regulated here in America could be so casually available in other countries that you can pick it up along with your Cheez-Its and your Twix bar and the foreign plug adapter you forgot to pack.
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