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El Salvador - Nicaragua - Costa Rica
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- Leόn & Masaya (day trips) - Isla de Ometepe - San Juan del Sur
(see map below)
Granada - laid-back sophistication (not unlike Antigua,
Guatemala maybe 15 years ago) with a charm of it's own and lots to do
in and around; good as a "home base".
50,000 sq. miles
(slightly larger than New York)
Managua, pop. 1.4 million
(25% of total population)
$90/month (stats vary depending on
source, but it's one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere)
coffee, beef, shrimp and lobster,
(US$ 1 = C 18.5)
28 volcanoes - several active, 8 crater lakes
civil wars and general unrest off and on over
many decades; 1987 Peace Accords settled things down in Nicaragua
Daniel Ortega (2006- ;
WHAT IS "típico
In Central America, típico is used to
describe typical, or a characteristic, of a region, in particular, food.
meal always includes, you guessed it - rice, beans, tortillas and usually
fried plantains. (For many families, all they can afford to eat are
rice, beans and tortillas - every meal, every day.) For breakfast, add eggs and a piece of white,
tasteless cheese. For lunch or dinner, add chicken, beef or pork and
maybe a small lettuce salad. Although we do eat típico
occasionally (it's usually good and always a cheap eating option),
fortunately breakfast americano is usually easily found!
Nicaragua is the
largest country in Central America but the least densely populated -
just the opposite of El Salvador. It borders both the Pacific and
Atlantic (Caribbean) Oceans. Most of the population lives in the
western part of the country, with the remote central and eastern areas
being mountainous and sparsely populated, and therefore not as safe for
traveling. Many volcanoes, some which are active, dominate the
northwestern landscape. The swampy Caribbean coast is called the
located in the western part of the country, is one of the
largest lakes in the world. There are more than 500 small islands
in the lake. Isla de Ometepe, an island
made up of 2 volcanoes (one erupted in 2005), is the 10th largest lake island
in the world. Lake Nicaragua is home to the world’s only freshwater
Salvador, Nicaragua has lost much of its tradition. Nicaragua and
El Salvador are tied together not only by their recent history of
revolution, but also their tradition of poetry. Nicaragua’s favorite
son and Latin America’s most important poet, Ruben Dario, has been
compared to Mozart (Dario was reading at age 3). Many public buildings,
theatres, etc. are named after him. He died in 1916 at age 49, and his
tomb is on one side of the altar in León's big cathedral.
For a hundred years, Nicaragua's politics were dominated by
the Liberals, centered in Leόn, and by the Conservatives, centered in
Granada. In the early 1900's, the U.S. had marines in Nicaragua to
support the Conservative government. A guerrilla leader, Gen.
Sandino, fought the U.S. troops who were dominating the politics and
eventually drove them out of the country in 1933. After Sandino's
assassination, the Somoza dictatorial dynasty dominated for decades, making
their collective families very wealthy, and the countrymen poorer.
After the December 23, 1972 earthquake destroyed much of Managua,
unprecedented international aid was sent to Nicaragua - but Somoza diverted most
of it to his family and cronies. The country became ungovernable, and
most countries - except the U.S. - cut ties with the Somoza regime. The
Sandinista guerrillas - which started as a bunch of increasingly militant
university students who
eventually adopted the guerrilla leader's name - now a formidable power,
forced Somoza to flee the country in 1979, ending the revolution. The
Sandinistas (FSLN party - Sandinista National Liberation Front), with Daniel
Ortega as their leader, were now in
Enter the U.S. once again. In 1981, President Reagan suspended
the aid package to Nicaragua, and accused
supplying arms to the guerrillas in El Salvador with the aid of Cuba and the
Soviet Union, which the Sandinistas denied. The fear was that
Nicaragua was headed down the path to communism. Under Reagan, the U.S.
trained and armed Nicaragua's former government's National Guard who became known as the
mission was to overthrow the Sandinista-led Nicaraguan government.
Reagan constructed bases in Honduras and Costa Rica for the Contras,
providing training and aid. This would go on for a decade.
In 1984, Daniel Ortega, who was the Sandinista
leader, won the apparently fair presidential election. Civil war between the
U.S. backed Contras and the Sandinista government forces intensified.
Rica's President Arias
spearheaded a treaty (aimed at stopping the civil wars in El Salvador and
Guatemala also) that was signed by all the Central American leaders in
1987 and called for suspension of aid by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
What also helped was the diminishing support from the U.S. of the Contras (U.S. caught red-handed on the Iran-Contra Affair) and the
Soviet Union of the Sandinista government (Soviet Union was about to collapse).
Although Arias was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, Reagan criticized
the treaty as "deeply flawed". By 1993, Central America was at peace
for the first time in ages.
Segue to the Iran-Contra debacle.
In 1984, the U.S. Congress banned Reagan from financing the Contras in their
quest to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. A workaround surfaced
whereby the U.S. sold arms to Iran in exchange for the release of seven
American hostages held by Islamic Lebanese terrorists, with the sales
proceeds diverted to finance the Contras. The U.S. got busted in 1986
when a Contra supply plane from El Salvador with an American pilot was shot
down by the Sandinistas; and six of the hostages were not released per
"agreement". "I cannot recall" became the catch phrase as denials and
The Sandinistas ruled for
11 years until 1990 when anti-Sandinista Chamorro won the presidential
election. However, businesses were becoming dissatisfied over business reforms
(companies were being nationalized),
general populace disenchanted about governmental corruption, and the Sandinistas
were unhappy about all their earlier achievements (lauded for literacy and
health-care initiatives) being undermined which now
led to unrest and threats of armed conflict once again. Conservative candidate
Alemán beat former Sandinista leader Ortega in the 1996 presidential
election. But then in 1998 hurricane Mitch killed 9,000 people, left 2
million homeless and caused $10 billion in damages.
Many people fled to the U.S. (under amnesty programs). International
aid poured in to Nicaragua. Most
of it, however, was siphoned off by Alemán, who had already embezzled $100 million out
of government funds. (Internationally, he has been voted one of the 10
most corrupt politicians.) The successor Liberal president, Bolanos, sent Alemán to prison for 20 years in 2003,
which boosted moral.
Nicaragua received an enormous show of support from the international
community when the IMF and World Bank forgave $4.5 billion of Nicaragua's
debt. In 2006, a free-trade agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA) went into
effect. Although the former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega ran for
president a few more times, he wasn't reelected until 2006 with 38% of the
vote. With Ortega in office, fear is
that international investments will now pull out of the country.
Ortega is politically aligned with Cuba's Castro, Venezuela's Chavez
and Bolivia. As noted in El Salvador's history, El Salvador who
closely aligns itself with the U.S.,
now maintains a
low-profile/non-committal relationship with Nicaragua.
Looking at the above map of
Nicaragua, you can see that on it's southern border with Costa
Rica, the San Juan River connects the Caribbean with Lake
Nicaragua. A narrow strip of land is all that then separates
Lake Nicaragua from the Pacific. The U.S. had approached
Nicaragua in the 1890's about building the inter-ocean canal through Nicaragua, but it was rejected by General Zelaya. After
the U.S. began constructing the canal in Panama, the then
politically weak Zelaya had a change of mind and tried to get
Great Britain, Germany and Japan to back another canal. In
1914 a Treaty was signed (and $3 million paid by the U.S. to
gave the U.S. exclusive rights to a canal, plus naval bases, in
Nicaragua. Even though the intent to build was no longer
there, it would stop any competitive canal from ever being built.
(The treaty was terminated in 1970.)
In late 2006, talk of building
the Nicaragua inter-ocean canal resurfaced. Even after the
Panama Canal's expansion is complete by 2015, it still will not be
able to accommodate the mega-ships. Today there are 900 such
mega-ships, estimated to increase to 3,000 by the year 2019.
To go from the U.S. east coast to Japan, mega-ships have to go
around Cape Hope, Africa. The great debate will be to "save
the ecologically rich lake environment" versus "build the
economically beneficial canal". Since Costa Rica shares the
border, they argue they should have a say in this matter.
- - -
We bussed in
comfort from San Salvador (El Salvador) through a corner of Honduras at
sunrise and in to Managua (Nicaragua). These border crossings
entail clearing out of immigration in El Salvador, clearing into and
then out of Honduras, and finally clearing into Nicaragua. Our
passports are not stamped due to the
CA-4 thing. It
only costs a few dollars, and although we're processed as a group, it still
took us a couple of hours to finish. It was apparent when we
crossed the El Salvador border into Nicaragua (immigrations aside) as the roads once
again became rough.
- - -
the capital, is widely known for being an unsafe city, not to mention
unattractive with not much of interest to see. The city’s center,
which was destroyed during the 1972 earthquake and further ruined by
bombings during the wars, has never been rebuilt. We had the
occasion to travel through Managua and see the sights from our
bullet-proof shuttle van (only kidding) on a day trip to Leόn, which was plenty enough.
Literally within 2 minutes of getting off
our international bus in Managua, we were in
a taxi headed to Granada, an hour away.
OFF THE LIGHTS?
Nicaragua is not able to generate enough electrical power
for the country, therefore energy is rationed. As a result, all
cities, including Managua, Leόn and Granada, are systematically cut off
from power each day (and sometimes not so systematically!). Can
you imagine Managua at rush hour without any stop lights!
Thankfully, Managua uses a lot of roundabouts in lieu of stop lights.
The lights-out schedule is made known at the beginning of the week and
times are rotated around each week. Hospitals and a few others are
Publicly, it is said that the electric generators
are not producing what they should be due to old, poorly
maintained facilities. Privately, blame is put on people
easily stealing power and not paying their fair share. One
establishment told us they saw their electric bill increase by
400% over the last 2 years. Some published statistics quote
the daily need at 480 megawatts but that only 310 megawatts are
being distributed daily. They say the electrical issue will
be remedied by the end of the year – which year we’re not sure.
. . AND THE WATER?
Without electricity, there is no water, either, as
cities/towns and most individual consumers use electric water
pumps. Some individual places have reservoir water tanks on
the roof that gravity feeds water when the power is off. One
day in Granada the water was off for 24 hours. Yep, that
means that in most places toilets won’t flush, faucets won’t run,
etc. Ok, it's not quite as gross as it sounds, as you then
barrel-flush - public restrooms have barrels of water
and a bucket outside, pouring the water in "flushes" everything
through the pipes. And, carry hand sanitizer with you.
Since I'm on the subject, toilet paper
is never flushed down the toilet anywhere in Central
America. A small waste basket is always provided next
to the toilet. Other than the plumbing not being able
to handle paper in general, some reasons we've been given
are: The antique plumbing is made out of tile which has
shifted with the earthquakes, causing uneven edges for the
paper to get caught on and build up; and the pipes are too small
(guess people were smaller back then???).
- - -
(pronounced like Ramada Inn) (pop. 90,000)
is located on the western shore of Lake Nicaragua. Founded in 1524, it
is the oldest city on the continent that still sits on its original
site, unlike many other cities that were relocated due to volcanoes,
earthquakes, floods, etc. Affluent Granada was a prime target for
the Caribbean pirates in the 1600's, as it is accessible from the
Caribbean by going up the Rio San Juan river, which flows along the
Nicaragua-Costa Rica border, and into Lake Nicaragua. This is also
the same route the sharks used to get into the Lake. (See
box FRESHWATER SHARKS below.)
Granada is what Antigua, Guatemala must have been like 15
or 20 years ago before the big influx of international tourists and
corresponding onslaught of street vendors. This colonial town,
with its brightly painted adobe facades hiding courtyards and fountains,
and colorful churches, has lots of great restaurants and bars to satisfy
anybody. And of course the weekend
festivities and vendors in Central Park attract locals and tourists
alike. Granada is also the center of a lively expat scene.
We arrived on a Sunday which was the Parade of Horses
through town – over and over again – about 400 horses and many drunks
participated. The town smelled like horse poop for several days
afterwards until the nighttime rains finally washed it away. The
following Saturday night in the Central Park, we were pleasantly
surprised by 2 hours of well-choreographed folkloric dance numbers
complete with colorful, coordinated costumes, large sound system and a
marimba band (remember, the electricity stays on on Saturdays). Very well done. After that, a dance band performed long
into the night.
horse-drawn carriages grace the streets of Granada.
one to get us acclimated to the city. Manuel, a nice young man
with decent English and well-nourished horses was recommended to us.
He's saving his money so he can attend the university next year to study
Iglesia San Francisco (church) we met a very nice young man, Enoch, who
works for the church (he works as interpreter among other things) and
gave us a tour. He took us to the Cathedral de
Granada (the beautiful large mustard and brick colored cathedral
pictured at the top of this section)
where his best friend Santos took us
to the bell tower where he did the
12:00 noon bell ringing. Enoch speaks wonderful English and
has a whole slew of American
colloquial speech in his repertoire.
him our American
magazines as we
finished them so he could practice – he was very inquisitive.
This was our introduction into Nicaragua’s energy
rationing system (see box WHO TURNED OFF THE LIGHTS? above). The week we
were there, Granada was
without power from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. except Saturdays (the next
week it would be from 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.). A few of the nicer
hotels and restaurants have generators. Restaurants cook with
propane. We walked around town with flashlights and ate dinner
by candle light, which isn’t all bad. Fortunately, it's quite safe walking the dark
streets at night in Granada. Our
little hotel had a big water tank on the roof so we
always had water.
checked out several museums, and had fun trying out all the
recommended restaurants - by candlelight. We used Granada as home base for exploring this
region of Nicaragua.
- - -
A day trip to
Leόn, the "other" Nicaraguan tourist
city, let us see the sights of Nicaragua’s
second largest city (pop. 182,000).
also founded in 1524 as the country’s original capital. Having been
founded 2 months after Granada, these 2 cities have been arch-rivals
throughout history. When the Momotombo volcano erupted in 1610
destroying Leόn Pompeii-style, it was relocated to a new site. To
win the civil war with Granada, Leόn invited U.S. mercenary William Walker to fight. But
after he declared himself president, and was subsequently executed, both
cities lost out when the capital was moved to Managua. While Granada
has always been considered conservative, Leόn prides itself on being
liberal, progressive, a cultural center, and Sandinista stronghold. The
rivalry is still evident today.
Museum of Legend and Myth
Mural at University
Leόn, some say, is a bigger Antigua, Guatemala - we just
thought it bigger. It has several very colorful, beautiful
churches, and the Basilica de la Asuncion on the Central Park is the
largest cathedral in Central America (see pictures below).
However, they all are in dire need of a good sprucing up with a power washer.
The highlight for us was the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Guardian, considered
probably the finest contemporary art museum in all of Central America.
The collection is so large that it is housed in 2 beautiful old homes.
(No pictures allowed.)
The day we were there,
Leόn was without power, and thus without water, from 6:00 a.m. to mid
- - -
We did an organized night trip to the nearby
Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the world and the most
heavily venting volcano in Nicaragua. In 2001 eruptions hurled massive
rocks high into the air, now seen scattered around; on April 23, 2007,
tremors shook for
again causing cracks in its structure (see below). Visiting this
volcano is described as ‘adventure tourism’ - and you’d never see this
stuff allowed in the U.S. We started off visiting the informative
museum. Then we drove to the top of one of the crater’s rim – where a
sign instructs vehicles to back into the parking area so a quick getaway
can be made if necessary - to peer way down into the bubbling crater
from several vantage points. The crater is very deep so you cannot see
the bottom, and noxious gases are being emitted. At sunset we saw
hoards of parrots returning to the homes in the crater - the only bird
that can tolerate these gases. We then, with natural light dimming and
town lights glowing way below, we hiked up a narrow ridge to view
another crater. Next we head to the volcanically-formed underground
caves, where bats live (again, they can tolerate the gases), with water
seeping throughout. We see large cracks that were formed in April 2007
from seismic tremors – and see big chunks of rock that have fallen from
the ceiling. (For our safety, we’re required to wear hardhats. Yeah,
like that’ll help in a big one.) At what used to be the
middle of the cave (now it’s the end of the cave since part of it
collapsed recently – hmmm, memories of the recent Utah mine
collapse are vividly stamped in my brain), we turn off our flashlights
and focus on the complete and
total blackness and the sounds of the bats. Next, what should be the
highlight - teetering at the jagged edge of the active crater – in the
dark with no railing of any sort, wearing a gas mask, we peer down into
the crater to see the red lava flow. Unfortunately, the winds were such
that they kept the rising steam and gases in place obscuring our view of
the lava. Very scary for someone who’s afraid of heights!
- - -
de Ometepe, one
of the world’s largest lake islands, is on Lake Nicaragua.
The island is shaped like a barbell, made up of 2 volcanoes - the larger and active
Concepciόn and the smaller inactive Madera - connected by a small isthmus. Concepciόn seems to rev up every couple of decades: The last
time fire and rock was ejected was in 1957, although there have been
several incidents since then of it spewing ash, most recently in 2005.
is about 16 miles from end to end, but 50 miles of road (most of it
awful) outlines the barbell shape. Most of the island is green and
lush, planted with coffee, banana, corn and other crops. Lots of
cattle, horses and pigs (which we haven’t seen much of so far in our
travels) roam freely, all are model thin (i.e., hip bones poking out)
except for the pigs. On our abbreviated island tour we saw some interesting
petroglyphs - over 1,700 petroglyphs have been discovered all over
the island, estimated to be between 800 and 2,000 years old.
A hike up to Mirador
del Diablo (Devil's Lookout) provided not only good views of both
volcanoes (when the clouds clear), but also great panoramic views around the lake.
Contrary to the rest of
the island does not have to ration it's electricity
because it is able to provide enough power for the entire island. The water
that comes from the island is certified by Nicaragua as pure.
The water in Lake Nicaragua is considered quite clean.
But interestingly enough, the only water craft you see on the lake are
public lanchas and ferries, and very small fishing boats. There
are no recreational watercraft at all. The winds can really pick
up on the lake, so seems like sailboats would be appropriate; there was
talk of windsurfers being keen on the lake. But,
with pleasure craft come the need for marinas, haul out facilities, fuel docks, and repair and maintenance facilities.
Or maybe it has something to do with the bull sharks???? (See box FRESHWATER SHARKS
Nicaragua is home to the world's only freshwater shark, a
bull shark. It got there by swimming up the
Rio San Juan from the Caribbean, just like the pirates did.
Although it's not huge, it's considered ferocious and strong
with a hearty appetite. It's adapted to the silty lake
waters with small, useless eyes, great sense of smell, and a
flattened tailfin which allowed it to meander up the shallow
rapids of the Rio San Juan. Additionally, the bull
shark can urinate away the salts which allows it to find
equilibrium in fresh water, unlike other sharks.
the 1930's, the shark became a cash crop for Nicaragua,
selling to Chinese and other buyers - fins for virility,
liver rich in vitamins, the skin like leather, but the meat
pretty much went to waste. In 1969, the Somoza
dictatorship-family seized the economic opportunity and
built a shark processing plant that over a decade depleted
the lake of an estimated 20,000 sharks. Although the
population has not recovered, the shark is still definitely
alive and lurking around Lake Nicaragua.
- - -
time to check out the Pacific coast.
situated very near the Costa Rica border, is not only a big expat and
gringo scene, but also a resort town where the wealthy Nicaraguans and
Costa Ricans take holidays (vacations). Based on recommendations
from cruising friends, we stay at a brand new hotel owned by
transplanted Texans. Before we knew it, we were
invites for gringo activities (e.g., poker night, pot luck dinner, water
aerobics, shopping). We did happy hour and dinner at the
spectacular 5-star hotel and restaurant, Pelican Eyes, located way, way
up on a hill overlooking all of San Juan del Sur and it's
This place merits at least a walk-through, uh, hike-up, for the views
and grounds – we made out way all the way to the top swimming pools – this place makes La Casa del
Mundo (Lake Atitlan, Guatemala) look like the bunny slope. Besides
Pelican Eyes, there are quite a few great restaurants that
we really enjoyed. We found the Nica Geeks solar powered internet
for the afternoons when San Juan del Sur takes it's turn at power
rationing (if it was raining, Deborah would cull through her multitude
of digital photos). It was basically a beach resort, albeit a bit
gringo-ized, to hang around.
is, as is El Salvador and Costa Rica, a world-renowned surfing mecca for
the Pacific breakers (bars show surfing videos during happy hour).
In Nicaragua, the surfing hub is centered around San Juan del Sur.
Supposedly, this is the 3rd best surfing spot after Australia and Hawaii
(which is seasonal). Nicaragua is so good because the winds blow
east to west over nearby Lake Nicaragua offsetting the Pacific offshore
breeze, as opposed to the usual onshore wind which churns and roughens
waves. (The north coast of Costa Rica benefits from this, too.)
are surfing camps up and down the coast from San Juan del Sur.
Visualize the typical surfer, he (or she) is probably a backpacker, too,
so these camps are typically pretty basic, and often remote (Nicaragua
doesn't have much infrastructure off the main roads), so some of the
surf locations are only accessible by boat. We took a day trip to
one of the best surfing beaches in Nicaragua - Bahia Majagual and Playa
Madera - where we watched the surfers
for the big one. Here the waves are consistently 3 - 6 feet and
frequently 9 - 12 feet in season. What is surprising is the number
of rock outcroppings along the beach, so some of these areas are for
advanced surfers only - as anything other than a successful ride could
spell disaster. Our day trip almost turned into an overnighter (we
would have had to sleep in hammocks) when heavy rains made crossing the
river road impossible, but subsided just before dark so the truck was
able to get in and out. Whew!
The highlight of
San Juan del Sur was a night trip to the beach at La Flor to see the
Olive Ridley turtles lay her eggs. It was almost a full moon which
is not the best time to see them as the bright
inhibits them. But we did see one come to shore, dig her nest
about 18 inches deep, lay about 100 eggs while in a trance, cover the
nest back up and wearily crawl back to the water and swim off.
(See box OLIVE RIDLEY TURTLE EGG LAYING below.) For the second
time in 2 days, we almost did another unexpected overnighter - in a
truck in the river. A safari truck took the group through
cedar and eucalyptus scented night air to the beach, crossing several
low water areas (one time the driver
across to make sure the truck could make it. But on the way back -
at 11:00 at night - the river had risen (it is rainy season) and the
truck stopped mid-river unable to get traction (or maybe it was starting
to float?), water up to the chassis and headlights partially submerged.
We all climbed out and waded through the river (I tried not to think
about what might be swimming in there) and up to the gooshy foot-deep
muddy road. After many attempts to shim the tires, the tour guide
hiked a couple of miles back to find a phone and call for assistance (no
cell phone signal where were we). We arrived home at 2:00 a.m. -
but at least had a bed to sleep in.
|OLIVE RIDLEY TURTLE EGG
of the world's sea turtle species nest on the Pacific and Caribbean
shores of Nicaragua (and El Salvador and Costa Rica). The
Olive Ridley is the most common of Pacific turtles, with as many as
3,000 invading the beach at the same time. It is relatively
small, measuring 2.5 - 3 feet long. The female stores sperm
(they do not mate for life) and fertilizes the eggs later. She
lays about 100 eggs, 2 or 3 times a year, always returning to her
birth beach (unlike some other species that go elsewhere). In
fact, old females will keep "nesting" even when they no longer have
eggs. Gestation takes 45-60 days. Hatchlings
their way out of the nest as a team, usually just before sunrise,
then crawl to the ocean. If they wait too long, the hot sun
will dehydrate them. It is important to let the hatchlings
crawl to the water unassisted, as this imprints them with their
birth beach. Only 1 out of 1,000 turtles will survive to
sexual maturity, 7 to 15 years later, to propagate the species.
Typical life span is 70 - 100 years. These turtles migrate to
Chile and back, and can dive to depths of 1,200 feet! (The
gigantic leatherback turtle can dive to 4,800 feet and swims faster
than a shark.) Light (sunlight, moonlight, flashlights) are
disorienting for both the adult female and hatchlings, so
flashlights were only used when behind the female.
- - -
From San Juan del Sur on the
southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua, we taxied to nearby Rivas and
caught the international Tica Bus to San Jose, Costa Rica. As we
enter Costa Rica soil, the landscape becomes more verdant. But, as
if on queue, the rain meets us at the border . . .
it is the rainy season after all . . . as we
enter Costa Rica .
Also see “El Salvador –
Nicaragua – Costa Rica Trip Recommendations” with lodging,
transportation and activity information including costs and trip
tips. Even the casual reader may enjoy looking at this to get more details
and an additional feel for our travels that have not been included here.
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