Divemaster training in Koh Lanta

Hidden Depths Diving - Koh Lanta Hidden Depths speedboat (Koh Lanta)

Well at long last, and after a very difficult few months, I start to think about writing the blog post for the seven weeks i spent on Koh Lanta doing the PADI Divemaster training.

This blog post is touched by the sadness that comes from the death of Martina.  However the only thing that i can about that is that life must continue, and I cannot look back over my shoulder at past events.

Hidden Depths Diving was where I was recommended to do the diving given the fact that its on the Andaman coast with beautiful seas and underwater wildlife, and the company has a speedboat which makes getting to and from the dive-sites much quicker than a big ol’ boat.

The main instructors (and owners) there are Gary Eldridge and Rich Mean and they are supported by a great crew of people (and friends) whom I had the great privilege of meeting, learning from them and spending time with them.  So to begin, thanks go to: Jo Healey, Ali Stevenson, Cynthia Ouelette, Michelle Morgan, Dora Costas, Drew Johnson, Stefan Schlenk, Steve Branson, Captain Bao, Did, Gia, and the other Divemaster trainees who were there at the same time as me being Robbie Newton, Onkel Thomas and Alessandro (and apologies if I have missed anybody off, as will fix in a later blog update).

Martina and I decided several months before I started the Divemaster course that it would be really good for me to allow some of my scuba-diving dreams to become a reality.

The Divemaster training was planned as a six week course, on the assumption that I would be gaining all of the knowledge and experience that you need whilst at the Dive centre.

So it all starts with lots of reading, it’s recommended to skim read the chapter first to gain a overall knowledge of the topic being discussed, then re-read the chapter and answer the questions and knowledge reviews.  It was convenient for me to start this way as the Hidden Depths Diving speedboat HD1 was out of the water for it’s annual refurbishment for a few days when Martina and I arrived in Lanta in late October.

Once you get passed the first 3 chapters, then real life experience with customers is allowed – a scary, but satisfying experience.  The HDD staff are all trying to give you as much rounded experience as possible.  So this means this means interacting with customers at all levels, from the moment they walk through the shop front door, until the time they leave, or you drop them back at their accommodation in the Dive Centre pick-up.

Andrew on board Hidden Depths speedboat (Koh Lanta) Did, Robbie, Gary and Cynthia on board Hidden Depths speedboat (Koh Lanta)

Koh Haa Lagoon (nr Koh Lanta) Koh Haa

The main places I dived at was at Koh Haa and Koh Bida as these places were great for novice divers to gain their skills.  More interesting diving was at Hin Daeng (red rock), and Hin Muang (purple rock), as these places often had strong currents and had great corals and a chance to see some of the bigger sea life.

Life as a Divemaster trainee, also involves lots of running around and doing some of the less glamorous jobs that still need doing when running a dive shop.  One of these jobs was to wash the PVC cover of the speedboat whilst it was out of the water.  Well we (me and other DMT’s Thomas and Robbie) had a good old time scrubbing away with only a small hand held brush and a broom – this was on both sides of the very large PVC cover, and occasionally having buckets of cold water thrown over us (unawares) by the ever so friendly instructors.  Well in that heat it probably helped and kept us cool.

One of the interesting things in the course that I had to do was draw a map that included underwater features, and the assigned item was the underwater caves at Koh Haa.  There are 3 submerged caves next to each other, and are one of the most notable reasons for people choosing to go diving at Koh Haa.  The underwater mapping took two goes as I was trying to measure distances by fin kicks, and depths in relation to the depth gauge on my computer.  I then drew the whole thing out as creatively as I could to include topography, points of interest, how the island looks like from the surface.  All in all I can say that my drawing skills improved enormously doing this project.

Some of the other skills I learnt and tasks that I did were as follows (and many others that I have not mentioned below):

  • Customer pick-ups and drop-offs.
  • Cleaning and rinsing dive equipment after use.
  • Guiding qualified and newly learning divers underwater.
  • Helping with the pool shows at Twin Bay resort.
  • Skills circuit at the indoor pool (practice made perfect to successfully take your mask off, swim round and then putting it back on again whilst breathing from the regulator).
  • Shifting scuba tanks around the place.
  • Snorkelling for 800m without lifting my head out of the water (lesson learnt here was just to partially lift my head out of the water to ensure that I was fin kicking in a straight line).
  • Scuba tank knowledge about filling tanks at Ace and Esther’s.
  • Preparing an emergency action plan for the Koh Haa dive site.
  • Assisting with another diver’s Rescue diver course by pretending to be a panicking diver.
  • Helping with another diver’s Rescue diver course.

I do have to point out that I was spending many hours at the dive centre and other dive related activities.  I did take a few mornings and afternoons off (and occasional days), and this helped with being able to spend some time with Martina.  We walked together to Kaw Kwang beach which was about 20 minutes walk from our accommodation.  In hind-sight though, and I may never truly know this, I wonder if I was able to spend enough time with Martina, as I know that she needed me at that troubled time of her life, which was very difficult for me whilst I was doing the course.  All I can say that when Martina passed away on the 5th December, was a point from when I started living more from my heart, and less from the mind – and would this have changed the past if I had done this earlier, that I do not know!  All said, Martina RIP, love ya honey XXXXX.

Andrew and Martin relaxing at Hidden Depths Diving decking - Koh Lanta Andrew being a DMT at Hidden Depths Diving - Koh Lanta

I was very close to completing the Divemaster course at the time of Martina’s death, and my brother Martin came out from England to support me for the last few days I was in Lanta.  So before Martin and I left Lanta, the last DMT task I had to do, and definitely the most challenging one was the equipment exchange.  The point of this task is to do a complete equipment exchange underwater with a buddy whilst only sharing breathing from one regulator from one scuba tank between us.  Thus you have to alternately hold your breath whilst removing and putting on scuba equipment, then take a few breaths from the regulator, and hold your breath again.  All this and not feeling like you are drowning – for me definitely a big challenge, and I am glad I passed.  Many thanks to Thomas (Onkle Tom), a fellow DMT during this exercise for being quick with the skills.

Rich on board Hidden Depths speedboat (Koh Lanta) Andrew and Gary at Hidden Depths Diving - Koh Lanta

Upon completion of the Divemaster qualification, a tradition is that the person has a snorkel test.  Normally this involves different types of party games designed to embarrass the Divemaster, and to complete the evening by drinking various alcoholic liquids which are poured down a snorkel tube into the Divemaster’s mouth who has to drink it all in one go.  Well given my circumstances at that time, we (myself and the HDD crew) all thought that would not be in my best interests (and in reality I am getting a bit old for that sort of thing), so instead a BBQ and drinks evening were held instead for all available HDD crew and various friends.  There aren’t any good photos of the event unfortunately, as the Nikon camera I was using was a bit ‘knackered’ and could not focus properly on anything when it was dark.

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Enjoying the sun and Andrew’s Divemaster training in Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta is a small island in the Andaman Coast of South Thailand, and it is well known for diving and long white beaches. We came to this island mainly because of Andrew who has been doing here his six-week PADI scuba-diving course to become a PADI Divemaster with the Hidden Depths Diving School.

Koh Haa Koh Lanta

We are glad to experience that the island is less developed than some of the other famous islands in Thailand such as Ko Phi Phi or Koh Samui. The white sandy beaches are long and truly beautiful and unlike some other places in Thailand uncrowded! The scenery is splendid too, being surrounded by beautiful crystal clear sea and around the coast line we can see many small islands, with forests, coral reefs and under water life. The island is covered with many mangroves and rugged tree covered hills.

The weather has been absolutely beautiful. We’ve had a few showers (tropical ones) but overall it’s been bright and hot. The locals seem to be very chilled out, just hanging around their houses doing very little or hiding inside against the sun.  The majority of the local people are Muslims, but a few of them are Buddhists and there are even sea gypsies who live a very basic lifestyle unaffected by the booming tourism on the island.

Andrew has been spending the majority of his time in the Hidden Depths shop learning his course and enjoyed many of the rides on the boat to the various diving places.

We also enjoyed our accommodation, particularly staying in Lanta Smile in Saladan, close to Andrew’s dive centre. It has been so great, having a nice room with a balcony facing the sea. It was so nice just to chill out there sitting and reading a book. The staff there, particularly Joy, are very kind and helpful. We even had the comfort of nice beds like being in a hotel room, having a TV, Wi-fi and a fridge in our room. We brought with us a small kettle that did all the jobs needed, even boiling or poaching eggs, blanching vegetables and cooking pasta and lentils for some of our meals, as well as boiling water for cups of tea! It’s surprising how much one can do with a simple travel kettle!

Koh Lanta Locals on a tuk-tuk in Koh Lanta's Old Town

Martina has been spending time on the beach, walking round the shops and shopping, having the occasional massage or cycling round the island (in the heat!!), visiting an animal welfare clinic and walking a few dogs there on a couple of occasions.

The pier in Koh Lanta's Old Town View of jetties (Koh Lanta) Sophie and the jeep (Old Town, Koh Lanta) Koh Lanta's Old Town

Our friend Sophie joined us a few weeks after we arrived. We enjoyed chatting about life, walking to the beaches, resting on sun loungers. One day we also hired a small jeep and explored the island, all its beaches and the Old Town. Koh Lanta’s Old Town is a small town with many wooden houses built on stilts, many of them are tourists shops selling the usual stuff such as clothes, souvenirs etc. There are also a few restaurants but overall it’s a small quiet town with more locals than tourists. We walked also towards the pier and admired the lovely views around.

Sophie and Martina enjoyed their regular back, head and shoulder massages in the Serenity massage shop in Saladan, the main tourist town of the island where we stayed. We thought that the massage girls were very professional and friendly, and it really felt like we had a good massage. The massage shop also had an area behind the shop, facing the sea where we had our after-massage cup of tea and some fresh fruit. It was very relaxing, especially sitting on a sofa overlooking the sea facing another island, feeling like we’ve done something wonderful for our bodies.

________________________________________________________________

The above text (even the title) written by Martina is going to stay as it is.  The very unfortunate news is that Martina was suffering from anxieties and depression in the latter weeks of her life (although you never would have guessed it from her writing), and she took her own life on the 5th December whilst in Koh Lanta.  Losing Martina was devastating to me, and even now updating the blog I feel intense sadness.  Martina was cremated in Thailand, and her ashes will be scattered in a sunflower field, however I am not going to write any more detail on the blog, as it is intensely personal to me and her family.  So I have decided to leave this blog post as is, and I will do a separate blog post on my Divemaster training.  The blog will continue at some point.

May you now rest in peace Martina, and be happy and free from pain.  You will be very much missed by all your family, friends, colleagues and anybody who was fortunate to come into contact with you.  As a friend mentioned: an angel has left the earth, and this is earth’s loss, but the heaven’s have gained an angel.  Loving you always Andrew. XXXXXX

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Six weeks of chilling out in Chiang Mai

After 3 months of travelling around Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia we decided to return back to Thailand, and headed to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. We still had 3-month visa for Thailand that we wanted to use up, and we like Thailand. Our Thai friend Five helped us to find a good accommodation close to the Chiang Mai Gate, the Smith Residence with a lovely roof terrace with the gym and a swimming pool., and a fantastic view over Chiang Mai and the surrounding mountains.

We didn’t do much in Chiang Mai, just chilling out on the roof top, eating out, wandering around walking streets at night, having massages, visiting a few temples, meeting some friends etc. We did a day trip to the Doi Suthep Temple. We also visited a dance festival, attended a few yoga classes, and a meditation class at the Yoga Tree Studio.

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Experiencing Chinese Malaysian Hospitality in Kuala Lumpur

After leaving Indonesia we spent a few days in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia, as a few days later we had to take a flight from KL to Chiang Mai, Thailand.  The first night we spent in China-town, and the following three nights we spent with our Chinese-Malaysian friend Puilin who we met in Borneo, and who kindly invited us to stay with her in KL and experience real Malaysian hospitability.

We were well looked after by her and her parents who live in a very nice house just outside of KL.  While Puilin had to go to work during the day, her father arranged for us to stay and enjoy the facilities in one of KL’s top hotel complexes as he works there.  This was an unexpected experience and we felt like two Alices in Wonderland being treated so well.  We were greated by the hotel manager and showed around this great establishment that we could use without charge.  We spent time around the pool and later we had a fantastic bufet lunch at the hotel’s posh restaurant, and no bill afterwards!  The only problem was that Martina seemed to overeat and ended up with an extremely upset stomach, probably from mixing all sorts of foods together.  This put her out of order for one whole day.

It was interesting to experience real Chinese-Malaysian hospitability. We loved the delicious food, and particularly the mooncakes that Puilin’s mother offered to us when we arrived. We are very grateful to our friend Puilin and her parents’ hospitability and hope to host them one day in England to reciprocate their kindness.

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Another beach holiday on the Gili Isles

We ended our one-month trip to Indonesia in the beautiful Gili islands.  We took a short boat ride from Bangsal, Lombok and settled ourselves on Gili Air.  We met a nice Austrian lady in Lombok who recommended us to stay at the Matahari Bungalows, on the western side of the island. We rented a beach-front bungalow on a fantastic white-sandy sunset beach with a view of Gili Meno.

The only way to get around the island is on foot, bicycle or by hiring a horse and cart. There are no proper roads, no motorbikes nor cars. Its very peaceful and tranquil for that fact.

We enjoyed walking around Gili Air and stopping at different beaches and sampling different dishes and drinks at different warungs (small family-owned restaurants), all with fantastic ocean-front views stretching over Gili Meno or on the eastern side we could view Lombok.  We enjoyed snorkeling from the beach and Andrew did a couple of scuba-diving trips around all three islands (Gili Air, Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan).

We did an island-hopping day trip to Gili Meno, which is the the smallest and quietest of the  Gili Islands.  We enjoyed sitting on a quiet beautiful white-sand beach where we also had the most tasteful fish curry for lunch.  Afterwards to burn the calories we walked around the whole island, which took just over an hour.  We almost passed out as we were so exhausted from the heat.  The snorkelling around Gili Meno is particularly good and we saw some beautiful fish and corals just a few meters away from the beach.

One of the best things about staying at the Matahari Bungalows was the most beautiful sunset that we had the privillege to watch every evening from our beach hut while sipping a coctail or beer and chatting to newly made friends. Often the visibility was good to see Mount Agung on the island Bali in the distance.  One night we thought that we saw lava running down the slopes of Agung, which is a still an active volcano.  However, later we heard that it was just a forest fire.  Nevertheless, it was a remarkable experience to watch nature’s activities from a safe distance.  When it got dark we often sat by the beach-side fire chatted to different people and listened to a music coming from a nearby bar or an old Gili Air man singing-laughing and playing a beautifuly sound local string instrument.

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Resisting the hard sale in Lombok (Indonesia)

After Bali we headed to Lombok for a few days. Despite Bali being relatively close in distance to Lombok, there are quite a few differences between the two islands.  In religion Lombok is mostly Muslim and influenced by the Sasak culture. Lombok compared to Bali is economically poorer,  less developed, unemployment is high, and more rural.  Lombok is more representative of the rest of the Indonesian archipelago.

We read about Sengiggi being a fantastic place to be on a beach and to go snorkelling and possibly even doing some diving there.  Well whoever wrote that part in the DK travel guide had not properly visited there.  We were a little disappointed with what we found. We spent a couple of days wandering around the uninteresting town and the beach.  The beach is OK but not great.  The sand is black and there are only a few places good for swimming.

One of the things that we will particularly remember from Sengiggi (and from Lombok in general) was being hassled by hawkers on the beach.  Martina spoke to one of them about his daily life and the business of being a beach hawker.  She found out that many of these men are very poor and they way to survive is to earn a small commission by selling cheap goods for someone else. The hawkers wander in the heat on the beach, in the hope to make some money to feed themselves and their family. They hate their job but feel that they have no choice.  People are desperate for money and tourists seem like a great opportunity.  One hawker told Martina that he has two children and wife, and his parents and younger sisters and he needs to feed them all.  He’d like to go to college and learn a skill so he can better himself, but it’s impossible. There is no financial support from the government.  Many people are caught in the cycle of poverty and find that there is no way out.  We gave him some money just for telling us his story.  It was interesting to speak to local people and find out about their way of life.

As there was not much else to do in Sengiggi we decided to hire a car with driver for a day so that we would be able to see some of the island’s sights. We didn’t want to climb Gunung Rinjani (which is a still active volcano that has thermal hot springs in which you can bathe in after a climb, and Andrew has already climbed it about sixteen years ago, and Martina simply wasn’t fit enough for it) so instead we headed south.  We also got chatting to a couple (German and English) who were staying at the same hotel as us and agreed to travel with us and share the car hire cost between us.  We started our tour of the island by visiting the Ampenan market where we bought some fruit and veg for later consumption.

Afterwards we stopped in a weaving village Sukarara and watched old ladies weaving traditional Songket textiles.  We even had our pictures taken wearing these fabrics!  Expensive to buy and not that practical, we decided not to buy anything despite the hard sale.  The local children in the village were cute and wanted to be taken pictures of and pose for the camera.  Obviously, they must be used to the tourists.

We also stopped at the traditional farming villages of Rembitan and Sade to catch a glimpse of traditional Sasak life, in which weaving textiles, growing rice, and rearing goats and cattle are major occupations.  There we also saw many of the bonnet-shaped rice barns that are now rare to see, but once they used to be a symbol of Lombok.  Once again we resisted the hard sale to buy unwanted souvenirs or textiles.

The most enjoyable part of the trip around the island was just spending some time on Kuta beach.  The beach is underdeveloped and has dazzling white fine sand, with the sea being crystal clear, and only a few people.  The coastline around there is ruggedly beautiful. However, as soon as we got out of the car we were surrounded by a dozen of small children, showing us their collection of bracelets and wanting us to buy from them.  They followed us then to the beach. We bought some  bracelets, just to make them happy and let us be. It didn’t work and because we didn’t buy from all of the children they decided to surround us and hassle us until we bought more. Martina purchased a bracelet from a cute little boy who didn’t seem to be as loud as the older girls. This made the girls upset and decided to provoke Martina by shouting-singing at her “You no good”, “You no fair” because she bought from a boy and not from them.  After about 20 min a local man came to rescue us and told the children off and sent them away.  Finally, we were able to enjoy peace and quiet for a while until some of the children returned again… until we bought more bracelets.  However, the kids were cute and we found it bizarrely amusing!

On the way back we passed through some villages including the pottery village of Banyumulek where we watched how they make handmade Lombok pottery. We also stopped in Mataram, the main town in Lombok (more of a village), where we looked at the water palace and a temple.  It was a day when the local Hindus participated in a major ceremony, providing offerings, playing music and singing.  They were also very smartly dressed.

The last destination on this trip was a quick impromptu stop and look at a Hindu ceremony that was going on in a little place called Batu Bolong.  This is an atmospheric temple shrine that stands on a black outcrop of rock reaching out into the sea. The sunset is spectacular there.

The final ‘hard sell’ in Lombok came from Pat-Tony our tour guide for the day of the car hire. Pat-Tony was very persistent in trying to sell us various travel tickets, sponsor him to buy a car (wtf!), and when he finally understood that we were not as rich as we looked, then he decided to desperately hanker after Martina’s broken Merrell sandals for his sister. Well the sandals had come apart many times, and Andrew had valiantly glued the straps many times to try preserve their life.  Well in the end Martina gave in and gave Tony the sandals, as it was either that or throw them in the bin in a very short while.  Well all we can say is best of luck to Pat-Tony with his sewing kit, and some very strong glue.

Well we thought that we saw a bit of Lombok and now we’re ready for the Gili islands!

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“Slowly, Slowly” – Taking it easy in Amed (East Bali)

A recommendation is always invaluable when travelling and visiting different places. Our friend James from Ubud, recommended a fishing village called Amed as being an easy going quiet place, uncrowded with a stunning ocean view. Amed is not just one village, but a string of smaller villages located on a 10-km long road.  Besides diving and snorkeling the main activity is just relaxing far away from the crowds in the south.

Amed is also famous for its sea salt production using old traditional methods. You can see the process of salt making unfolding as you walk along the beach. One day we went closer to look how they do it and suddenly we were surrounded by 20 small children and several women all trying to sell us salt. It was overwhelming and deeply moving seeing all the little faces pleading with you to buy salt from them. Martina acquiesced and purchased one small salt parcel in a decorative straw case for 10,000 rupiah.  She closed her eyes and chose one child at random – ahh you might say, but you should have seen the faces that were unlucky that time.

We found a nice homestay place right on the beach, that had beautiful views of Gunung Agung and fishing boats on our sunset side, and views of the sea on the sunrise side.  Plus an even better benefit was there were excellent coral reefs to snorkel in the sea straight in front of the homestay.

Amed beach becomes a place of social gathering, particularly in the late afternoons and before the sunset. We enjoyed walking along the beach watching the fantastic sunset behind Gunung Agung as well as watching children singing and playing the guitar, kicking the ball around or trying to sell salt to tourists. There is always a ceremony taking place in Bali, and Amed is not an exception. Sometimes it may involve a sacrifice (a pig or two) and a party on the beach afterwards. We also saw women going around the beach and blessing the colourful boats (outriggers) with flowers and water so that their men, the fishermen, get lucky to catch fish when they get out on the sea.

One day we decided to hire a motorbike in order to see more of the sights of eastern Bali.  our first stop on this trip was the Royal water palace of Tirtagangga, a well preserved water palace.

Further on our motorcycle trip we saw yet another beautiful water palace, Puri Taman Ujung in Amlapura. Afterwards we continued our motorcycle journey back to Amed. This proved to be quite challenging as we decided to test the engine and brakes of the motorbike by taking it up the steep road leading towards the mountain called Gunung Lempuyang.  The journey down the mountain tested the brakes of the bike to the limit, and for a short period (very fortunately) the front brake decided it was a bit too warm and would not work.  Worried about how we get down the mountain we cautiously carried on our journey and luckily a little later down the mountain the front brake started working and we were ‘cooking on gas’ again – and heh! let the journey carry on as normal.

We took the narrow road winding east from Ujung around the eastern tip of Bali. It is indeed a very scenic route, with spectacular views of the rugged coast and the mountains. We passed small villages and temples and see how the locals live by tending their little plots of land and taking care of the cattle and goats. The area is stunning in terms of its nature, but economically rather poor and we often had children, and sometimes even adults running after us begging for money.

Andrew enjoyed the snorkelling right in front of the homestay and he saw many interesting sand eels, and a couple of sting-rays.  Well this slightly spooked Andrew and he kept a healthy distance away from the sting-rays – well we all remember what happened to Steve Irwen when he got too close to one of them. The diving was a little more challenging as due to the currents flowing between Lombok and Bali, the diving can often be drift dives.  The first dive was definitely like that and it was a challenge to stay close to the ocean floor (slower currents) whilst avoiding knocking into the coral reefs on the ocean floor when we came upon them.  The second dive was still a drift dive and a little more sedate, and my Divemaster had a run-in with a beautiful blue nudibranch that took a dislike to being prodded and poked, very funny to watch.  PS what does happen if a nudibranch latches on to a diver, I guess I will find out later on in my diving experiences?

The area around Amed is one of the best places to go to for scuba diving in Bali. There are a couple of sites with shipwrecks that are worth seeing and they are located very close to the shore so one can snorkel to see them (the WW2 Japanese cargo ship in Jemeluk, and the US Liberty ship in Tulamben).

Our stay in Amed was made even more enjoyable by staying in Babu Racok, a homestay accommodation owned by  Wayan. He is a very typical Balinese and we remember him being always positive, friendly and helpful and telling us “slowly, slowly you’re in Bali” everytime we showed our habits of wanting to do too many things at once or seeing us rushing about. One night he and his wife cooked a fantastic Indonesian seafood meal, which was the best dish that we’ve had in Indonesia. We also enjoyed Wayan telling us about local culture, ceremonies, how they make sea salt and NGO projects happening in Amed to support economic growth in the area.

In our homestay we teamed up with a couple from Belgium who stayed in the room above us and one early morning we decided to hike up the hillsides behind Amed. It was a challenging walk, and we got lost a few times. However, it was worth the effort. The views from the hills and down on Amed and the coast, and the views of the Mount Agung were amazing.

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