Northern Thailand – The Mae Hong Son Loop

By alex Uncategorized

I’m always fond of motorbike round trips and never got really disappointed with one. Among the best, was the one from Chiang Mai, to Pai and back in a triangle that took nearly two weeks. This wasn’t even supposed to happen, as the original plan was to get a minivan. However, as I planned to leave after Loi Krathong and  didn’t make a reservation, all minivans were full. After a short walk in central city I managed to found a kind motorbike rental house who didn’t mind renting a brand new 150 cc scooter for the purpose. It wasn’t the cheapest price, but we never had a single problem with it (something far different from the fellows who decided to buy themselves a bike with the intention to sell it at  the end… I found them several times at the mechanicians!! – That can be very adventurous but, for me, not really fun.)

I left Chiang May shortly before lunch, with the  intention to  stop somewhere on the way, and so I did. The fist part (1/2 hour “ish”) is a very uninteresting  crowded, polluted, straight line, road. After route1095, the road starts climbing up, and the 762 famous curves start to pop-up. Don’t let them intimidate you, nor you try to finish them fast. This is a road to be enjoyed. There are mountains and valleys to be climbed, a few cafés and restaurants to stop, with tasty food and drinks. I did  the trip while the road was being rebuilt, which added a bit of mud and respect towards the big trucks. Priority here goes always to the bigger ones. Don’t play fancy!  Still, most of the road was in safe, good condition. Beware of the cold (and misty  weather or rain) in  the higher places.  Also, there may be some areas with no gas on sale, so never let it get way below half tank.   

On arrival to Mae Hong Son district, there was  an intimidating military  check point, but officers ended being friendly and there was absolutely  no problem to cross. Even with no rush and a lunch stop, I arrived to Pai way before 5:00, which gave me time for a rest and shower before heading to the night market for food and a bit of sightseeing. It is nothing of spectacular, but the  laid back atmosphere and the tasty snacks, and  the backpacker fauna is very enjoyable, on such a remote corner of the world.

Pai itself hasn’t much to see, despite the aforementioned night  market, the river and its bridges and the canyon. This one is small, slippery, somehow dangerous and usually crowded at sunsets. It has a few decent sunset views, but it is far more famous than worthwhile. Anyway,  it’s near the centre and free, so  why not  visiting, if you have the  time? 

The memorial bridge is another  overrated view in  the city, with traditional dressed children popping out of nowhere to get some coins in exchange for posing. I passed by and didn’t become a fan. However, it’s  another of the “must do”  things, if  you stop one  day in Pai, which you should, if you’re not superman. 

The  nearest stop, from Pai, was Than Lod Cave, 50 km North. 

Than Lod Cave

If at all possible, plan a whole day trip to this one. The road itself is curvy and scenic, with valleys worth the selfie shot.  On arrival, one must pay for the “guided tour” – a formality meant to  give  the locals  some extra income. Basically you are  put in a bamboo raft with three or four other  people, a  rower and a  woman with a petrol lamp. The raft will go along the subterranean river, stopping in the middle for a series of cave visits and at the other end for some more. The woman  will take the group through  the endless wooden stairs and paths leading to secondary caves are many, some wide, some smaller, some even holding the remaining of teak coffins of ancient tribes.  When I visited the whole area was accessible on  foot, so after the “guided trip” I did another “self guided” one, by land, with plenty of time to re-explore the most interesting areas (and there are many). I had brought a submersible strong torch and so should you, if wanting to see the whole dimension of it. If you are able to stay until sunset, find the narrow path that circles around the cave and get to the other exit. Find yourself a sheltered place and observe two impressive phenomena: the swallows return  and the bats departure. There are millions of both, filling the air with putrid smell, and their singing, describing waves and  patterns  in the sky as they fly.  We were maybe half a dozen of “daredevils” who dared to explore and  wait until that time (knowing that we would return through a semi-unknown mountain path in total  darkness), but it was one of those unforgettable, life-time experiences.  

Mae Hong  Son and its vicinities

Then, you either drive back to Pai, stay in one of the home stays on the cross-road with Route 1095 (9 km), or head straight to Mae Hong Son (65 Km, 1.5h).

I did stop on that crossroad and did the trip on the next morning. Somewhere on the way there was a wildlife park where I decided to stop and take some landscape and insect shots. Plans changed when a gibbon decided to be over friendly and climb on my back, spooking away  all the little critters. Its nails on my scalp weren’t the best experience, though it ended up being fun interacting with this  unknown primate.

From Mae Hong Son itself I only remember the lake, the two twin temples (Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang) alight in the evenings and the nearby night market, offering some local clothing and sweets. I heard there is another one, plus a few more  temples but didn’t visit them. Another good memory was Salween River Restaurant, with plenty of local and western dishes on a lively atmosphere and generous portions. There was nothing unique about it nor anything to criticise, being  like home away from home, for the evenings. 

Heading  North, there is Su Tong Pae Bridge  (17 min / 11 km). It’s a long bamboo made bridge, (supposedly the longest one in Thailand) built by villagers to serve the monks of Wat Tham Poo Sa Ma and locals of Ban Gung Mai Sak. The view is lovely and peaceful, and so is the temple. Watch their images below.

Further north (1h / 43 km, from Mae Hong Son), near the border with Myanmar, Ban Rak Thai, also known as Mae Awa, can also be  worth the visit.

It is also built around  a lake, charming and peaceful, with many lake side restaurants and tea shops. Chinese food in there was slightly  disappointing, meaning not at all bad, but not justifying such a long trip. On the contrary, the views around the lake were really nice,  something completely different than the remaining Thailand I  was used too. Some say it is  possible to cross the border on foot without visa, but I didn’t try it.

Mae Hong Son is also a departure point for  visiting the  refugee camps where the  long neck woman can be found. I visited Na Soi  (17 Km  / half an  hour to NordWest). Find the detailed post in here.  Huay Pu Keng  (20km / 29 min southwest) was recommended by one  of the villagers and seem to be another  popular spot, though one must hire a boat. For that reason, and being  a bit short on schedule, I didn’t visit. 

For those staying in Chiang Mai, and not willing to travel  that far, there is Baan Tong Luang (40 min, 27 km  away), which is something  between a tourist  trap souvenir mall and  a refugee zoo.  As they  charge  tickets and they weren’t  that cheap, I chose to  stay  outside  and didn’t visit. 

Doi Inthanon

After a few daily trips  from Mae Hong  Son, I started the way back  to Chiang Mai. The  plan was an ambitious 200 km / 4 hour ride, which  proved to be… Too ambitious! The rain started pouring soon, and the mountains were freezing. It was mid afternoon and there was still nearly 100  km  to go (I confess  I didn’t leave very early). The wisest option, considering I had to drive  real slowly and there weren’t  many gas stations on sight, was to stop and stay for the night, somewhere on the road. It shouldn’t had been so far from Khun Yuam, but I don’t remember the name of the place, as I cannot read Thai characters. It was a region with vibrant agriculture – strawberries, if I’m not mistaken. There was a small hostel with triangle shaped wooden huts. A lovely elderly couple was at home  / reception and  offered  me  some warm tea and  showed me the spot which wasn’t, at all, luxurious, but suitable, under the  circumstances.

After drying a bit and resting my back, I went back to the main road and found myself a pair of China made trousers (had only brought shorts) on a street stall. There were no real restaurants around, but a sort of barn where locals were having stewed beef and vegetables – nothing like the fancy street food in Bangkok – it was real farmer everyday food. I self invited me in  and  had a warm, inexpensive comfort meal, among the curious eyes of the locals who came also for food and groceries. No verbal communication, but a lot o kind friendliness, made this stop a great memory. 

Next morning I arrived at Doi Inthanon, which the 2,565-metre holds the title of the highest point in Thailand. People went there with the purpose of feeling cold and taking  selfies near a thermometer marking 5 or 6 degrees. It was funny to watch their enthusiasm which, obviously, I didn’t share – had enough of that in my homeland! On the same road, a few metres below, there  was a beautiful garden with two pagodas, (the Great Holy relics and  the King’s), which are recently made monuments, but impressive,  nonetheless. The garden had different coloured ornamental cabbages, very funny to watch, and a huge variety of birds.  

Watch the images, below:

 I regretted not to have brought a longer tele, as there were many posing flying subjects. Later I was told that birdwatching was one of the main interests in the area.

The remaining of the day was spent in Khun Klang. It has extensive, immaculate gardens, totally worth the visit. The Hmong market was slightly disappointing. Big in size, but an overall tourist trap selling fresh  and preserved fruit and an almost inedible, sweetened, beverage they ambitiously call wine. I was foolish enough to buy it and eventually drunk it (still  wondering how…).  There was a gigantic tourist restaurant nearby, selling (among other well cooked dishes)  a totally new recipe of fried frog with herbs which was just delicious – though maybe a bit spooky for some.

Camping  happens  almost everywhere, among plastic vegetable garden tunnels. At night, both lit up, creating a unique view. I found myself a simple, family owned home-stay with homemade food and plenty  of advice on  where to go,  to watch the  famous birds, which  I did, the following morning, before heading back to Chiang Mai.

Before arriving and returning the motorbike (which, I must confess, was sounding a bit like a diesel engine, at that time) there was still the chance to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (watch the images in here). 

Overall, I totally loved the trail, and hope to do it again, in  a warmer season (it was December, back then) with a bit more time.


Long-neck women in Thailand

By alex Uncategorized

Long-neck woman posing by her souvenir shop.

One of the main reasons to drive up to North Thailand (watch the whole round trip description in here) was to be able to see the long-neck women. I hadn’t seen much more than a few images and, though I felt lazy to investigate further, there was some sort of fascination about it. Why would these women self mutilate in such a way? Was it purely aesthetics? Was it some sort of captivity? I heard that after many years wearing brass rings, the neck muscles couldn’t hold the head anymore (not true, at least, in the majority of cases). Was it some sort of male dominance over women?

The same lady, posing among a group of tourists.

I wondered (and still do) what would be for these women to do sex?! Anyway, there was cooler to visit the people than to read on them over the internet, so off I went.

From Mae Hong Son to Ban Nai Soi, there wasn’t much more than half an hour; from the village to the Kayan camp, maybe another half, as the road wasn’t in the best condition.

I remember seeing a barbwire fenced gate of a refugee camp that wasn’t accessible to tourists – spooky! What wound be going on, inside? Guerrilla movie scenes and torture camps in tropical jungles, crossed my mind. Previously, on the road from Pai to Ban Nai Soi, there were quite a few huts along the roads, with guards controlling them. They were always friendly, never asked for any documentation or searched the motorbike and I never managed to know what were they controlling…

Advert, with a short explanation, at the entrance of the village.

What is this concept of “refugee” imposed by Thai government? On a stop for lunch on a small restaurant by the road, there was a group of Karen music players. (Karen is the whole ethnical group where the Kayan belong). They were polite and introduced themselves. At first I thought they’d be asking for money, but I was totally wrong. All they wanted was someone to talk to, in English – and their level was probably better than mine.

Ban Nai Soi Kayan village, entrance view.

From what I understood (and confirmed later) the Karen fled to Thailand to save their lives from the ethnical cleansing attempts from the Burmanese majority in Myanmar, happening in various waves, since the country’s independence. Thai government allows them to stay in certain areas, but they cannot leave them (that’s why all the road guards), or work, meaning: if they want to sustain themselves or their families, either they live on tourism, or they work illegally, for a fraction of what a Thai citizen would earn.

The long-necks, being displayed on zoo-like villages (some charging an entry fee), live on showing themselves to tourists and souvenirs selling. That’s why some young women choose to wear the rings, as it’s a way to a guaranteed sustenance.

As for the remaining Karen, they dream with independence or immigration, and there are communities being settled in the US and Canada, from the early 2000’s. That’s why they prize so much education and English proficiency.

I said goodby to the group of artists and proceeded to the long-neck village. It was nearly empty. At the entrance, there were two souvenir shops, and one long-neck woman. Soon, a second one joined, as more tourists were coming. I followed the main path, found a few kind youngsters waving from their motorbikes, and a simple village, made on wood and dry leaves.

The only sound of human activity came from the school, so I sneaked-in. Classes went on an orderly manner, kids were attentive and, though it seemed poor, for European standards, it also seem way more productive.

Coming back at the entrance, a group of tourists was chatting to one of the long-neck women and finding out roughly the same as described above. Again, the lady spoke really good English, and also played the guitar.

She had some sort of conformed, passive temperament, and didn’t seem, at all, revolted or unhappy with her faith. That caused a deep impression on me. I couldn’t possibly accepted being displayed as a tourist object for life!

Visiting this lost tribe among the jungle ended up being a strong lesson on temperament diversity.


Surin Elephant Round-Up

By alex Uncategorized

Among many of Thai festivals and events, I was particularly fascinated by Surim Elephant Round-up, and felt lucky it was happening during my stay in the country.

The beginning of the show, when the mahouts present the elephants to the crowd.

At the time (2015) there wasn’t much information on the Internet about it, so it wasn’t easy to find the actual dates and plan – just that it was happening on the second weekend of November. I ended up missing one of the main festival’s events, because of that. There is a whole Wikipedia article, about it, so I’m not repeating – only sharing some personal impressions and essential information.

Baby human and baby elephant in the festival area at sunset.

I traveled from Ayutthaya to Surim by train. People coming from Bangkok (480 km away) can either take the train, which takes slightly longer (8h) or the bus (around 7h) There is an overnight bus, arriving near 4 a.m, but I know nothing about its safety and comfort. From Ayutthaya, the trip takes around 5 hours, which isn’t much. However, the first one departs around seven, arriving past 12. As I did it on a Friday, I missed the elephant arrival procession and following banquet, which had already taken place in the morning. For this one, expect around 300 elephants, and nearly 50 tons of food.

The festival area, during the day, not yet crowded.

The festival lasts for over a week, but all the main events happen on the first weekend. Both Saturday and Sunday mornings there are the shows at the Elephant Stadium, contiguous to Si Narong Stadium, South of town.

Baby rabbits being sold as pets on Surin Round up festival. It was a total first time to me, and I didn’t particularly fancy the clothing. Nonetheless is an interesting perspective of a different culture.

(Update: Friday and Saturday evenings, there are light and sound shows with music, dance, and historical reenactments at Prasat Si Koraphum, a 13th century Khmer temple located a 30-minute drive outside of Surin. I found this info, years later, so don’t really know if it’s still happening and how it is.)

A traditional music performance. One of the many side events to the festival.

As for the shows: There is a free area, on both sides of the stadium stands. For that one, you must arrive early as only the first row gets a sort of clear view. Be prepared to stand for about three hours under the sun. -that’s how long it takes. For the stands, there are different price tickets depending if on the middle or on the sides, with is indifferent. You want to stay on the higher seats, the only shady ones. The remaining are unbearably hot, as the white walls reflect the sunlight. So, if you get yourself a central spot un a low area, you’ve made a bad deal. The best ones (for price) are the top sides. If possible, stay in the South stand as you’ll have the sunlight in your back. Buy them in advance or ask hour hotel to do it for your (and expect to pay a high commission).

Chestnuts and other fast food delicacies on sale at the festival.

During these 3 hours, it can be a bit boring. There were interesting parts: when hundreds of students play traditional music instruments and dance; also when they enact a battle between Thai and Khmer armies (if I understood it correctly); the initial presentation, when all elephants and mahouts fill the stadium.

Other parts, like elephant soccer playing and hula-hops, I found quite uninteresting. Anyway, the overall show, is a must-see. I attended both (Saturday and Sunday), despite being the same show, to be able to shoot from different angles. A slightly longer tele (300 mm) would have done wonders, I didn’t have it yet.

At the end of the shows, people are encouraged to take pictures with the animals, for a small fee.

Apart from the show, there is an adjacent area (around the Athletics stadium and before that one) with some food and attractions, nothing too fancy, but good enough for some food and spending time. Every now and then, mahouts will show up with their elephants, encouraging people to spend 20 Baht for feeding them.

I had mixed feelings about this. Elephants, of course, didn’t seem too happy. …But then again, the Kuy (the name of the Surin residents) have always been mahouts and elephant hunters and their tradition is as deeply routed as horse riding is on the Western world.

Maybe they’re not as “humane” as some thing they should be, but that’s their life, their culture and their land. Feel free to attend it or not, but refrain from judging.

If you decide to go, it’s better to book your room, as near as possible from the festival area. Streets will be absolutely crowded, specially during evenings, and walking is, pretty much, the only way to reach the area. Also be ready to quit drinking, at least for those days, as alcohol is strictly forbidden.


Ayutthaya historical city – Thailand

By alex Uncategorized

Train station on the way to Ayutthaya

It was Winter 2015 – low season in Indonesia – and I got myself some time and money to to a SouthEast Asia trip, pretty much like most backpackers do. On planning what to see in Thailand, a friend of mine suggested Ayutthaya. There were some red Angkor-Wat-style temples in the travel guides, and I thought: why not?! It was one and a half hours from Bangkok by train (slightly less if you take a minivan), and on the way to Surin, where I later went to attend the Elephant festival.

At the time we rented a motorbike and rode around, from temple to temple, not caring so much about History, but mostly to capture interesting views and relax.

Chao Phraya River, in Ayutthaya – the same serving Bangkok and the gateway into the ocean.

As I became aware of its dimension and the former greatness of temples and palaces, I did some googling. So I found it was the former capital of the Ayutthaya / Siam kingdom, erected from the decline of the Khmer empire, on the 14th Century and lasting until the 18th, when destroyed and burned by the Burmese (1867). The kingdom was slightly smaller than actual Thailand. Chiang Mai and the North were independent. Ayutthaya was a sort of confederation of provinces under the rule of a king – though the capital was an important trade centre in SouthEast Asia, mainly in the 17th Century.

Buddha head overgrown by fig tree in Wat Mahathat.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit the country and to conclude a treaty for permission to trade. During my visit, I came across the ruins of the Dominican church of San Pedro, conveniently located by Chao Phraya river (where all the overseas trade would necessarily go). It was excavated and preserved by Calouste Gulbenkian foundation, whose headquarters (in Lisbon, Portugal) were 2 min walk from the University I took an Art History degree, many years ago. However, I never heard a single word about it, neither in college, university, nor even when I concluded my own PhD, in History. That was a bit humiliating but, at the same time, an indicator on how biased and partial our university studies were.

In fact, San Pedro was only one of the tree Catholic churches (“São Paulo”, for the Jesuits, and “Madre de Deus” for the Franciscans) erected on the Portuguese settlement. It “was probably the biggest western community in Ayutthaya with a population estimated at 3,000 people.”. …And all this time I knew nothing about it.

Daily marked in Ayutthaya, selling what most would see as “extreme food”.

Despite swallowing my pride and assuming my ignorance, Ayutthaya was a quiet, charming, place to visit, with nice river views and lakes, ruins and temples, and a busy night market. (There is also a “floating market” nearby but that’s nothing but a tourist trap. Food is inexpensive and tasty, but there is no real market going on. Neither it is “floating”, as it’s an artificial lagoon with restaurants and shops built around).

As for the real night market, it’s located on Ban Ian Road, starts around 5 and doesn’t stay open until late. Food variety is awesome with lots of curries, grilled and fried fish, century eggs, pork meat, different kinds of sweets and bugs! Tasty, crispy, recently fried crickets, grass-hopers and silkworms made for locals (meaning, not the mushy ones, often seen in Khao San road).

Below: Insect snacks, form Ayutthaya night market. On the right, it’s the detail of a cracker, actually made of insect larvae. Nutritive, tasty and sweet.

Overall, being for a bit of History learning, food tasting, or just chilling and relaxing from frantic Bangkok, I believe Ayutthaya surely deserves a visit. At the time, I stayed for two nights, and it proved to be a good choice. On the first day, I could do some exploring after the Bangkok train trip and checking in. The second one allowed me to go to some temples away from the centre and avoid the crowds of daily trippers. Next day, I headed to Surim for the largest congregation of elephants on Earth.


Rinjani mountain – Lombok, Indonesia

By alex Uncategorized

Looking West, from Rinjani crater, we can, not only see the inner lake and volcano, but most of Lombok, the Gili Islands, and even Bali, on the horizon.

Apart from the Gili Islands, Rinjani mountain is probably the greatest attraction on Lombok Island. The climb, however, left me with mixed feelings, so I’ll explain why, in the following lines.

The beginning of the climb, shortly after Sembalun

There are two main itineraries to climb the mountain, and a few variants, depending on time and money spent. I believe, in normal circumstances, you’re able to do it on your own. You might not want to, specially if you plan to stay overnight, as you will need to carry all your gear and food, and it’s not an easy climb. If you’re a seasoned climber and are in good shape, it’s doable to make it in a single day.

Regular operators either start from Senaru Village, or from Sembalum. I started from this one, on a 3 day program.

Rinjani Basecamp, where we left hour baggage, and had the late breakfast / lunch.

It should have been less than 8 o’clock when I was picked up from my hotel, in Senggigi. It was about two hours on a minivan, until Senaru, where we were left on a homestay terrace, to get a late breakfast and, basically, wait. People with excess baggage were invited to leave it there.

When people were fed and ready, another van took us to Sembalun, which was another hour ride. I wondered why all this wait. It would had made more sense to me, going directly to Sembalun, have breakfast at the hotel and sleep a little longer. Apparently, things didn’t work that way.

About lunch time we started our climb. It was a mild, seven hour climb until the rim, where we camped. As I was carrying heavy photographic equipment, a porter was bringing my clothing bag (which was quite small, by the way). It is two hours until POS1, and soon the group split according to pace and stamina. You’d get overly tired if you’re forced to slow down, so better climb along with the ones in similar shape.

The group started to arrive maybe one hour before sunset. Some porters had already set up the tents, which was nice. The food (and my clothing), however, took nearly two hours to arrive. I was sweaty, freezing and, like most of my fellow climbers, starving.

It happened that one of the climbers, a Chinese chubby lady, had brought an extremely heavy backpack including (I found out later) a stringed musical instrument and an enormous pot of sambal (local chilly sauce). After maybe one hour, or so, she found it impossible to carry on – the porter had to carry this extra backpack and almost had to carry her also. That delayed all the operation.

We had a light dinner, it was already dark and tried to rest until 3:00 am, which was the departure time. I wanted to go earlier, as the tent was too cold to sleep, but staff was serving coffee and snacks and, eventually, they departed late.

I wasn’t able to reach the summit for sunrise and it was a steep 3 hour climb, with many people and loose, small rocks. Every now and then we had to take out our shoes and shake them to remove the volcanic sand. Some of our group members chose to stay in the camp.

Landscape, was astonishing. To one side, we could see Sumbawa, to the other, the 3 Gili Islands and the remaining of Lombok. Inside the crater was the lake and a small, red, active volcano. It was hard, but definitely worth it. Had I done myself, I’d start later, and climb straight to the summit. That pause for sleeping on the freezing cold tents was, for me, just a waste of time and energy.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to enjoy the views, as we were supposed to go back to the camp around 9 something, for breakfast. We find some long tailed macaques along the way, but they weren’t aggressive. I wrongly assumed we’d have some hours to rest (or eventually sleep) under the morning sun. No: right after breakfast, we started our descent into the crater.

What was left of a marked path had long ago collapsed and we had to, literally, jump from one huge rock into another, for another 3 hours. The original plan, for this company, was to have lunch at the crater and then climb back, another 3 hours on a steep rocky path back to the rim, on the West side. Luckily, both our Chinese fellow and her guide were physically exhausted when we reached the crater. Besides, it rained.

The hot spring lagoons, a 15 min walk from the crater.

Plans were changed, and they decided to camp in the crater, allowing us the remaining of the afternoon to bathe on the hot spring lagoons, enjoy the views and rest.

The view from our camp site inside the crater.

On the following morning we did the ascent to the rim, had lunch on POS 2 (of Senaru trek) and arrive back to Senaru Village shortly after 2 pm. The 3 day climb was, after all, a one day climb with small bits of the other ones, and it would have been even shorter, if plans had not been changed.

Porter, cooking lunch at Sembalum POS 2, on the final day.

I can only say that putting inexperienced climbers on an 11h day climb, with over 3.500 metre combined gradient, on top of a sleepless night, isn’t just foolish: it’s utterly stupid! People pay to have fun, to relax and to enjoy the sights. Having them forcibly testing their strengths to the limits isn’t for me, the best choice. Besides, it is dangerous, as many are so extenuated that they lose focus.

The other part I didn’t enjoy, specially at the crater and some POS, was the amount of rubbish, plastic bags and even gas tanks left behind… To the point that we needed to be cautious on where to step, as we left out tents at night, for any reason. I remember that, as we descended to the crater, we lost our guide for an hour or so, due to differences in pace. The way to find the right track was to follow the one with most rubbish.

As a conclusion, Rinjani is a unique and beautiful mountain to climb and explore. Unfortunately, the experience has been ruined by littering and careless operation. I hope, for the sake of the environment and all involved, that this changes in a near future.

Watch the remaining pics in the following gallery:


Ogoh Ogoh in Mengwi

By alex Uncategorized

Ogoh – Ogoh

It’s a sort of Carnival, for children, and a big celebration for the Balinese, taking place in every village, the day before Nyepi (Balinese New Year) in Bali. In Mataram, Lombok, the parade used to last for a whole afternoon and evening, extending for over 10 km.

As with everything that is Hindu related, this celebration seeks balance: in this case, a purification from all the noxious spiritual human practices, committed throughout the year. These ones are portrayed as demons, made of bamboo, styrofoam and paper, on ephemeral figures which can reach a few metres in hight. Some can be quite elaborate, with exquisite design and engineering, vibrant colours and fancy led lights.

Preparation starts many weeks or months before the parade. We can see groups of adolescents and children working on it at the evenings in the Banjars and warehouses. Usually, the Seka Truna Truni (Balinese village’s youth organization) make at least one, the children another small one, and, eventually, the some artists make a few more.

Despite its importance, this tradition is quite recent, dating to the early eighties, when it was used to criticise Suharto regime. Political messages are still present today, but not that often.

The day starts with a temple ceremony: Pengerupukan, where beside from praying, every family takes home cooked rice and holy water, to make their own offerings to the earthly spirits. Somewhere during the afternoon, the Ngrupuk parade will start, finishing near midnight.

In there, the Ogohs are carried over a bamboo pad, by at least 8 men, or children. They are paraded around the village, until the cemetery, where they are supposedly cremated, to extinguish the evil influence. In some crossroads, they are rotated, frantically, tree times, counter-clockwise in a sort of exorcism to get rid of the evil spirits.

This parade is accompanied with one or several gambelan music bands, sometimes including showgirls.

The one shown in here happened on a village near Mengwi, and also featured dances and educational theatric performances inspired on the ancient Indian Scriptures. It was made into a sort of contest, on which a jury evaluated the performances, with prizes to be attributed to the winning banjars.

Celebration usually ends with the ritual cremation of the figures, at the village’s cemetery. However, I have been observing that more and more are saving complete Ogohs or, at least parts of them for the following year, voiding the whole ceremony of its meaning.


A Funeral in Sumba (Indonesia)

By alex Uncategorized

Warning: graphic images, below!

Preparing the area, meaning, the village square for the ceremony. Notice the children on top of a tomb.

During my stay in Nihiwatu, as dive instructor and photographer, I was invited, by one of our boathouse staff members (Martinus) to his father funeral. He hardly spoke any English, I can’t speak more than maybe a hundred words of Bahasa Indonesia, and far less of any Sumbanese dialect.

Despite our verbal communication being scarce, he seemed an honest, thought, straight-forward, man – someone we could trust – which is important when we are daily playing with our lives on the wavy and treacherous waters of the Sumbanese sea.

At the time, there was no-one to ask the meaning or the whole content of such a ceremony. I was just told what to do, when invited and stuck to that.

Mother and child, attending the funeral. There is absolutely no feeling that blood shedding and death is improper to children. All seem to coexist with life and death.

On the first day, me and another staff members were invited to his home, near Pantai Rua where we stayed, accompanying the living and the dead. Sitting at a traditional house’s porch, we drank either coffee or tea, smoked, chewed betel nut, and watched our colleagues play card domino. It was funny, as the loser must hang a pig jaw in his ear, as a punishment for his loss.

Martinus and his brother (the only family members I knew) were visibly shaken, but for most of the crowd, and there was maybe a hundred of them, it was just something normal.

We went back to the resort, and I’m not aware of what happened during that night. On the following afternoon we returned for the buffalo slaughtering ceremony. I believe it is part of the Marapu religion, but there was no priest to be seen (or, at least, I couldn’t tell them, among the crowd).

Villager, traditionally dressed, waiting for the ceremony.

One by one, buffalos were brought to the centre of the village, where the ancestors tombs stayed, tied with long ropes, pulled by around ten men. Then, someone would take the parang (small sword) and cut their throat, leaving them bleeding to death.

As the last one was slaughtered, they soon proceeded to dismember them, and cut in small pieces. As far as I understood, some would be boiled, some would be smoked, and some would be taken to the attendant’s home. People, however, didn’t seem too interested on the meat, on a gastronomic perspective. I remember seeing the elaborate sculptures made from pork meat and fat, at the temples and ceremonies in Bali. There, it was all about processing it fast. Unfortunately we weren’t able to stay and attend to what I believed to be a following meal… There was, however, a caged pig on site so, most probably, the ceremony would last for some days, with a few common meals.

Caged pig, waiting to be slaughter of one of the following meals.

The pig’s jaws and buffaloes heads, are kept at the traditional house, as a memory of the event. That memory is crucial, as all the animals offered are expected to be retributed when the offerer need to have his own ceremony. This chain of offers and debts can grow to astronomical values (I heard one Buffalo with specially big horns was valued in 10.000 USD, but I couldn’t confirm it).

People will get in great debt, sometimes even bankruptcy, just to sustain this tradition, while living miserable lives in between.

Get the overall feeling and energy of the ceremony in the images from the following gallery:


Camino de Santiago: 2 – from la Meseta to Santiago

By alex Uncategorized

Please read part 1, to get the full history.

Below: The beginning of la Meseta.

With all of this going on, walking was no longer the most important part of the day, though the pace was kept the same. It become a totally different experience than the one I anticipated. From, roughly, the second week until the third, there is what is called the Meseta – the flat part of the Camino, between Burgos and Léon.

Convent ot San Antón – Castrojeriz This was the residence of the Antonianos order, devoted to tending to the pilgrims. The remains of this church stand at the entrance to this village which welcomes them through its famous arch. The two arches on a raised portico were built in the 16th century, protected the entrance to the church.

It is unprotected, doesn’t feature many shades or hostels but, most of all, it’s flat, There is no curve, no hill to distract the eyes and the mind. On some days, we start on the same straight line we finish. Often it was windy, cold, rainy, and sometimes even hailing.

On the worst day, we did only 18 km. Woke up under a layer of snow, got a little sun in the morning, but it started raining before lunch. Still, wet from the previous day, we decided to put a halt on it before lunchtime, arriving to a hostel, which seemed to be closed. Besides, it was totally uninteresting. Hadn’t it been the only within a huge mile range, we would have picked another one.

Castrojeriz, as seen from the Alto de Mostelares.

As we were losing thrust, a lady opened the door and pointed us to the dorm. As we asked for what was for lunch, she put a sorrowful expression and said: “I only have smoked meat.” If she said “stones” we’d still answer – “It is ok!” – as we desperately need some heat, to dry our shoes and feet.

Canal de Castilla – Fromista.

After a warm shower and changing clothes we proceeded to the restaurant area, being the only ones on site. Soon, she brought a steaming pan, full of pork meat, potatoes and vegetables. The meat was tender and moist, not overly fat, with a smoky touch. I’m not such a lover of pork meat and still I ate until physically possible, so good it was. That’s the best memory of the Meseta.

Below: two views from the endless plateau, near Terradillos de los Templarios.

The other one was its finish. Reaching Léon, getting the group all together again (we separated each other at the Meseta, as some weren’t unable to keep the pace, while others made it even faster). That was the time for celebration, Cañas and tapas, but also to prepare for the last part of the Camino, which was Bierzo, and then, Galicia. Some of us, me included, wanted a total rest, so we booked in a small fancy hotel, for a change.

Some of our group, by Leon cathedral.

It was pricy, but the idea of having our own room, smooth and fragrant sheets, comfortable pillows, and a private bathroom with tub, was too tempting. Funny how something you take for granted at home, can become an exquisite pleasure. That’s how we learn to value things and be thankful.

In contrast, the worst hostel experience at the next city – Astorga – when we got bed bugs, and it was totally disgusting. The city, however, was pleasing. Being Sunday, we also ran into a local celebration, with trumpet bands playing, and had the chance to try the local comfort food: the Cocido maragato, which is a titanic meat and chick pea stew. Restaurants serve them in a way that you will be full for the whole day, or even longer: First, they present a plate of stewed pork meat and sausages, then chickpeas, and finally meat and cabbage soup. You’ll be lucky if you survive past the meat dish. We did it until the end and still ordered dessert!

Being photobombed, in Leon’s main square.

In Bierzo, soon after lies the highest point of the whole trail (I believe the Pyrenees aren’t taken into account), 1.500 metres above sea level – la Cruz de Fierro (Iron Cross). People are supposed to bring a stone from home, and throw it to the cross – I didn’t. Had enough of weight to carry and, in fact, mailed some less needed stuff and souvenirs home, from the post office in Léon.

The weather (which hadn’t been great on the previous weeks), deteriorated even further, with strong winds and showers. In Foncebadón, the Domus Dei parish hostel was a nice and warm refuge among the storm, where we stayed for the night.

Church tower, at Rabanal del Camino.

Others chose Manjarín, further ahead, which, on the next morning, seemed even more desolated than it shows on travel guides. There was something electric and spooky on the day light, filtered by the clouds and fog, reflected on the green pastures and ruins – as if aliens were to land and reclaim that piece of land.

There is one and only hostel (and inhabited house) in the village. If was abandoned mid XX century and only on the 90’s the hostel was re-opened.

In Ponferrada, weather became more endurable, though (as the group grew bigger) it was hard to find a proper dining place. Most of the afternoon was spent visiting the Templar castle.

We were still welcomed in Galicia with a huge storm. O Cebreiro, the first village in the province, was almost totally closed, and there was no way to stay there for long or get any decent shots.

Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross), between Foncebadón and Manjarín. It is 5 feet high, and the cross is a replica of the original preserved in the Museo de los Caminos in Astorga. People bring stones from home, and leave them there, but I didn’t fully grasp the symbolism of it.

From then on, we started to feel spring. Sometimes it still rained, but green kind of changed tone, and flowers blossomed. Maybe it was also the sense of proximity to our destination.

Me in Manjarín, among the wind and rain.

The arrival to Molinaseca, still in El Bierzo.

Castle of Ponferrada – Building started early XIII century, by Templar Knights.. With more than 8000 m2, it was one of the largest fortresses in the Spanish Middle Ages.

O Cebreiro, marking the entrance on Galicia.

The famous, centenary, chestnut tree, in Ramil.

The Monastery of San Xulián de Samos was another highlight of the whole trip. There were two main paths to Sarria, and some among the group picked the other one, as it was slightly shorter. I couldn’t possibly miss the visit: I have an unpayable debt with the Benedictine Order, as other monastery in Portugal (Singeverga) had become “home” for some weeks, to finish my PhD. At the time, library was of great help, and so it was the community of monks, providing me both the information, serenity and shelter.

Watch the images from Samos Monastery, below:

The visit was guided by a kind and talkative monk, which showed us the various phases of construction, the history, the way of living, and even some of its treasures, all with a touch of humour.

Espigueiro – a traditional granary, meant to keep the corn dry and

We could imagine those walls full of men willing to learn and share the secrets of Philosophy, throughout the centuries. Personally, I felt a bit sad that such discipline lost the meditative, ascetic, and respectful component, and became a matter of light debates among drunk and high youngster students. At the end, there was hand made chocolate on sale, and it was really tasty!

Sarria was the first Galician city we came across. I remember the warm sunlight, hitting the trees near the river; the hostel was the most beautiful and well decorated we stayed in the whole Camino; but most of all, I remember the gastronomy. Lunch was mainly seafood, and included the famous Pulpo a la gallega – Octopus, Galician style, meaning, boiled in salted water and sprinkled with salt, olive oil and paprika. It goes along with bread or boiled potatoes, and used to be served in street markets for people to lunch after a morning shopping. (We did it also, a few days later). Dinner was, probably the finest – we went to Hotel Roma and, among other delicacies, I remember the superb partridges. Service wasn’t fast, but that was to be expected as it was totally full and we didn’t had a reservation. It was well worth the waiting, though.

Back to the road, we realised that suddenly there were far more pilgrims than before. Apparently, people do a small weekend-friendly version of the Camino, starting in Sarria, to Santiago. There were school kids with their teachers, families and groups of friends. We could easily identify those ones from the pilgrims coming from France: they were noisier, the clothing was shiny, the body postures, shapes and expressions were completely different. We were like quietly but steadily, hovering, while they were jumping all over the place. We had passed the barrier of pain, both physically and emotionally. They were still full of anxieties. It happened to me quite often to run out of water and think… “It’s only ten kilometres more; I’ll drink then”. And it was no issue, whatsoever. Those guys could’t spend five minutes without a drink or an energy bar.

That made us realise how much we had been transformed by the Camino – in and out – for the previous three weeks. Having seen each others almost every day, we didn’t notice the differences, but among this wave of pilgrims, it was clearly seen. I tried not to be judgemental. After all, a single day in the Camino would be better than none.

Portomarín, near the Belesar reservoir was interesting, mostly because of its Romanesque Church – it had been dismantled, brick by brick, from its original place, and rebuilt, like a lego puzzle, uphill, so it was preserved from the water when the reservoir was built. Never realised before that such a thing was even possible.

Monte do Gozo (Hill of Joy), marks the place where the pilgrims had the first view of Santiago church towers. It is, however, still 3 km away from the city centre.

The last history worth of notice, was the arrival itself. We had stayed in Arzua, with the intention of doing a short stage, resting in Pedrouzo. We arrived there, it was less than midday. Walked around the village. At this time there was just two of us – me and Slava, a young pediatrist from Belarus. We looked at each other and thought: are we really staying here? Certainly not. It was “only” twenty kilometres to Santiago. “Let’s do it! With luck we’re still on time for lunch!”

So we did, arriving shortly past two o’clock. Around 40 kilometres, on top of 28 days non stop, with our backpacks and a few souvenirs. Some of our group were already there, but most arrived after one or two days. We attended the mass with “botafumeiro” (the gigantic, swinging, incense burner) all together and had dinner on a big esplanade. At the time it was about 30 of us, all cheerful, all full of experiences, and all transformed.

Watch the gallery from Santiago Catedral (including the “botafumeiro”, and the Apostle’s tomb), below:

Some of us went to Finisterre, either by bus or by walking. (I chose the Bus version. Not because it was physically too challenging to walk, but because the purpose of my pilgrimage was over, it wouldn’t make sense to carry it further. It is hard to get into the pace, in the Camino but, for some, it is even harder to get out of it. “Home”, with all this duties and obligations, acquires a new meaning, and it’s not necessary a pleasant one. Some people never get out of the Camino. They keep walk it back and forward, taking advantage of the cheap accommodation and, eventually, perish there. I heard some first hand stories, along the way, that got me sad as, traditionally, a wandering soul is a lost one.

As I took the bus back to Lisbon, I wasn’t too happy to return, but understood that all cycles must reach their natural end. Soon, it would be the end of the “living in Europe” cycle for me. In Bali, Indonesia, where I live now, I’m geographically far away from the Camino, but I believe it will always be part of me. Often I wondered if it would make sense to do it again… Many people do, but, so far, I think the purpose of such an experience is completed. Many more Caminos will lay ahead of us.


Camino de Santiago: 1 – from Saint Jean to Burgos

By alex Uncategorized

Albergue is the Spanish word for hostel. Some are owned by the municipality or the local parish, and have cheap prices, or even work by donations. Some will have private owners and can be, from the basics to sort of “boutique hostels”. Planning distances is crucial, both on high season (when most will be full, after a certain hour) and on low (when some will be closed).

It all started during a lunch in Santo Domingo de La Calzada. I was coming from an Agro Exhibition in Zaragoza with some friends, it was winter, 10 degree cold, and we parked our car outside the city, walking to the centre in search of a restaurant to eat.

There was a “pilgrim menu” and I wondered if it was some sort of marketing strategy, special comfort food, or if there were actually pilgrims who went there to eat it. My doubts dissipated after lunch, when we were back to the track and I payed attention to one or two lonely men slowly walking along the main road. Yes, there were pilgrims! Even under such a weather! I remembered San Tiago de Compostela, as a famous pilgrimage site, but had no idea that people still went there on foot.

Made a little research and found out it was quite popular – even Paulo Coelho, the renowned Brazilian writer, made a book on the topic. Later I discovered that its Korean translation got so famous that they built a small replica, so they could “sort of” experience it.

I always hated walking – it was a waste of time, and not so beneficial, comparing to other sports. After all, people invented cars and motorbikes, for a reason! The idea of leaving in isolation and doing some sport, for a whole month was, nonetheless, appealing. At the time I was sharing home with a girlfriend who was, indeed, sweet, but whose vacuity often drove me to despair. That was a good excuse to get some holidays from her, and I could invoke a “spiritual reason”.

Some months before, a friend had invited me to accompany her on a shorter Pilgrimage to Fátima, as she made a vow and needed to pay for it. At the time it wasn’t much fun. The stages were too long, I had no preparation, whatsoever, no proper shoes, no motivation… The promise she made ended up working, but for me it wasn’t much more than useless pain.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the departing point from the French Route.

I’d do it differently, this time: buy myself a pair of nice hiking shoes, start training a few kilometres each day… From the local parish I got a pilgrim passport – a way to stamp all stages along the way. Dusted my teenager backpack, bought a train ticket, got my camera and a few lenses, and off I went: from Lisbon on the night train, first to Hendaye and then to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Arrived early afternoon, booked a bed on a hostel, got my passport stamped and the itinerary. From the train station, to the city centre I had already realised my backpack was too heavy. Or maybe it was just me, not used to carry such a thing. Anyway, there was nothing to do about it, but to carry on.

The afternoon was spent on sightseeing and degustation. The night wasn’t so restful as there were a few snorers in the dorm.  I woke up before sunrise with the intention to break the rules: from  Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles (a Benedictine monastery on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees) there was two ways: Napoleon crossing the high mountains, in an allusion to the French invaders who chose it, and Valcarlos, longer, but contouring the highest peaks.

Some more images from Napoleon way, until Roncesvalles:

Napoleon way was officially closed due to snow, so there were no restaurants, no hostels, no nothing, along the way, but there were no police, no roadblocks to prevent people from going. If you do something once in your life, you must do it properly and enjoy the scenery. No way I was missing the snowy mountains!

That was the reason I wanted to start so early: in the dark, less people would see me and try to prevent me from going. It happened I was not the only one!

Crossroad on mid Pyrenees, on Napoleon way, descending towards Roncesvalles.

The loneliness, at least for the majority of the way, was inspiring. The views, breath-taking. I arrived to Roncesvalles soaking wet, as many kilometres were done with snow up to the knees and sometimes I just sat and let myself slide down. I got lucky with weather. Mostly sunny and not windy at all. Still, my shoulders and legs were totally worn out.

Below: Roncesvalles monastery and one of the dorms:

On the following day I felt fine. Despite starting a bit later, meaning, around 7, I arrived to Zubiri way before lunch time. Walked around the village and most hostels were closed, and so did the restaurants. The only open Hostel didn’t seem to clean, so I chose to carry on until next city. That would have been fine, if there was one in the next 5 or 6 km, but I ended stopping at Arre, which is 15 km ahead, totalising 36, instead of the planned 21! I got swollen ankles and knees, blisters on my feet and a strong back pain, in reward for the foolishness.

From Roncesvalles to Zubiri.

The hostel, however, was a charming old monastery, the monks were super kind. I was placed in a room along with a middle-aged super polite Mexican guy (Roberto, his name.) who gave me a pair of earplugs, as he snored heavily. He was quite agile and a good dining fellow.

Below: a small church along the way, and Arre village, with the monastery beside the bridge:

The third day was, probably, my worst. The pain was nearly unbearable, I had to walk extremely slowly, stop along the way. As I reached Pamplona I wanted to walk alone the streets where I’d previously ran along with the wild bulls, but I wasn’t able to. Just went to the altar of San Fermin, and re-read the prayer as so many times before. It felt weird and lonely to be there without all the other runners. After all, that was the first time I went to Pamplona without the San Fermines.

Below: San Fermin altar and prayer.

I was stubborn enough to push myself further and not stay in Pamplona. Those were another 28 km, which might have been ok if the backpack was lighter or my preparation stronger. Neither of those were true.

Below: From Pamplona to Puente de la Reina

The last mistake I made was to push myself on the next stage, doing nearly 29 Km, from Puente de la Reina to Ayegui for the sake of the fountain of wine.

Puente de la Reina, shortly after sunrise – the beginning of another stage.

Ideally, I would had stopped in Estella, which had more to see and to enjoy. But that would mean I’d arrive to Bodegas Irache during morning, and that wouldn’t be a good time to start drinking. So I stretched it to Ayegui, where I arrived past 3:00 pm and left my backpack. From there, it was 800 metres more to the wine fountain, and to the cellars and monastery itself. It ended up being a nice visit. Out of curiosity, the wine was free, but the glass, if you’re not bringing your own, was 1 euro, through an automatic dispenser. There was a video camera on top, so feel free to drink, but not to bring home! The wine was far better than I expected. Quite drinkable, even without food.

Below: Irache monastery and cellars, seen from my dorm window. / The fountain of wine.

From that day on, I got in a vicious circle of pain and struggle, where beauty and images were no longer important. What mattered was to accomplish my self-imposed schedule. I was no longer enjoying the energy of places, the beauty or the nice people I found on the way. The important thing was not to stop, not to admit defeat. Weariness, both mental and physical, was accumulating and the night sleep simply wasn’t enough to recover.

Ruins of San Pedro, church in Viana, Navarra.

Vineyards, in Navarra. A presence for many kilometres, along the way.

Some days later, I ran across a Dutch nurse, Ingrid her name, on the same homestay. At that time my knees and ankles were visibly swollen and she helped to drain the liquid back into circulation, something that allowed me to carry on. Funny as it seems, I had already seen Ingrid while walking and didn’t sympathise with her. That was a great lesson.

The pilgrimage got new colours after Los Arcos. That’s when I stayed at the same hostel as a cheerful drinking / partying group – there was people from England, Portugal, Holland, Ireland, Belarus… I hope I’m not forgetting anyone. We started to drink mid afternoon, and ended around midnight, having an abundant dinner in between. At that dinner, if I’m not mistaken, two Englishman found out that they had taken Napoleon way by mistake, believing that was Valcarlos.

Shoes at the entrance of a hostel. Another typical view from the Camino meaning that either resting resting time, or another stage was on the way.

Like me, they went trough the snow, until Roncesvalles – however they were wondering how much harder “Napoleon way” would have been! Hilarious! Those two guys were consistently getting drunk every night, but were also consistently walking next morning. I’m still wondering how they were able to keep the pace.

Strangely, I was not hung-over on the following day. In fact, the pain was becoming more bearable. …and that kept happening: we planned in which hostel to stop, and as people kept arriving, the party started. The routine was roughly: wake up after 6, have a quick breakfast, walk until 10, have a second breakfast, walk until 1 (or shortly past that). Check in at the hostel, shower and eat heartily. The “menu del pelegrino” started to be a daily reality and so did the go-along bottles of wine.

After that, came the “siesta”, from, maybe 3 to 5, and then more drinking and dinner. Bed time would be in between ten and midnight.

Not all days were the same, despite the schedule not changing much. That depended on the available dining and sleeping options. Some hostels allowed or even encouraged the party mood. Two scenes are worth relating:

One of many dinners. Group was still comparably small.

One, I believe was somewhere between Castilla and Léon. After dinner at the hostel, and old man came and sang with loud and powerful voice a traditional Spanish tune which left everyone impressed. People tried to take turns on performing something related to their home country until an Englishman turned to the Koreans and say: Sing Gangnam Style! They didn’t find it too funny, but everyone laughed for looong time.

Other was a quemada in Galicia. That’s a traditional drink made with a local spirit (orujo), flavoured with special herbs or coffee, plus sugar, lemon peel, coffee beans and cinnamon. That is set on fire to reduce the alcoholic strength, but it still remains quite powerful. As it’s prepared, a spell is recited, supposedly to keep bad spirits at distance.

After around two weeks doing over 25km per day on average, the miracle really happens. For no apparent reason, I stopped feeling the muscle and joint pains, and, though I’d get tired or cold, hiking was something like hovering over the ground. It not only happened to me, but to other in the group who struggled to continue. There is something spiritual that allows the pilgrim to overcome what he believes to be his limits; even despite drinking, sometimes, over two bottles of wine in one day. As I mentioned before, that never caused me a hang-over, though I’m pretty sure I’d have a bad week if I tried it on a single day.

Below: landscapes from Atapuerca.

Pilgrimage was more that eating and drinking. There were days we were sheltered by monasteries, bigger and smaller. Volunteers shared their own experiences. We got visits to cathedrals ruins, towers, museums, cloisters. On many occasions we attended catholic services, masses and prayers – some with a really deep spiritual energy.

Below: Burgos views and good times.

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