Saturday, July 22, 2017

Whenever I travel, one of my favorite things is to find cool street art. Tehran has no shortage of it with everything from murals and stencils to actual pieces of art commissioned by the municipality to be placed throughout the city as part of the beautification project. I've tried as much as possible to snap quick shots of the art I've seen during this time, but I know there have been countless that I've driven by and wasn't able to capture in time. Nonetheless, here are some of my favorites.


Edgar Allan Poe, actor Behruz Vosoughi, singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian, MJ



Kiarostami by Ebresk

A modern take on Persepolis or a comment on car manufacturers Peugeot and Samand

Art is not a crime


Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Czech proverb says ‘Learn a new language, and get a new soul.’ Similarly, a Persian proverb says, ‘A new language is a new life.’ I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always been crazy about languages and used to count the days to get to 9th grade because that was when foreign language learning was required. I chose Spanish and went on to later major in Spanish Language and Literature, study in Spain, and spend the last two years of college adding Italian and German classes. After spending time in Italy and Germany honing my skills, I realized the place where I’m happiest is in the language classroom, so I became a language teacher and will continue to be a lifelong language student myself. I’ve since added Portuguese, Greek, and Croatian to my list. 

But language is so much more than grammar and vocabulary. Or the IELTS or TOEFL exam, which many of my students consider to be the ‘end’ of language. (Cringe) Within language lies a world of culture, beliefs, behaviors, and understanding of a society. Which is also why I get a little annoyed when people try to bargain down my prices here- don’t they realize we’re talking about a new life! And while we’re on the subject, imagine how many cool people there are in this world who we won’t ever know for no other reason than a language barrier! A case in point is one of my best friends. I’m so thankful he speaks English because I don’t speak his language, and I don’t want to picture life without his friendship.

But I digress.

Everyone’s heard the idea that your personality changes depending on the language you speak, and I felt this most strongly when I spoke Spanish. I felt freer, more outgoing and light-hearted. German made me more assertive and logical, and Italian made me carefree and appreciative of life’s simple pleasures. There’s another thought to this theory, though, that it’s not so much the language as it is the culture you are in. This rings a little more true in my opinion. Speaking Spanish, German, or Italian in the US was nowhere near the same for me as speaking them in their respective countries. It was definitely being immersed in that culture that made the difference. 

But as much as I felt those languages gave me another persona (at least abroad), I never felt that with Persian. I always thought it was a part of me, just like English, and I considered myself completely bilingual. It was only once I started studying all this language theory in grad school and later teaching that my perspective changed. Some claimed you could only be completely and fully versed in one language, which made me reconsider my beliefs. When I count, I count in English. For me it was a telltale sign that English was my native language. And the simple fact that I was never educated in Iran and don’t feel confident writing anything other than a text message in Persian was another. To be fully bilingual means to be fully communicative in every skill.

Growing up my only exposure to Persian, really, was talking to my parents, a brief exchange with a family friend, or the occasional Iranian movie. During our two-month summer vacations in Iran, we’d have to leave just as my speaking was becoming more fluent and my accent was improving. Otherwise, I spoke (and speak) English with my siblings and any Iranian friends I have in the US. 

Since I’ve been in Tehran, I speak with much greater ease, picking up everyday lingo and vocabulary and of course the ever-changing slang which has become rusty for my parents in their 44 years living in the US. In fact, I had to explain to my mom once what the taxi driver meant by the highway being ghofl (gridlocked). “Well that’s a new one,” she replied. 

But I probably still speak more English because of my job, and though I feel comfortable with Persian, this constant back and forth between languages has made me realize one thing: I am my true self, I am Pontia, when I speak English. And every time I think I’m making headway and conversing more like a local, it seems my American mannerisms creep in and give me away. There have been countless occasions when the person I’m talking to is giving me a ‘look’ like they sense something is up but can’t quite put their finger on it. When I let the cat out of the bag, I get a “You’re American! That’s what it is! I knew something was off.” And they proceed to tell me that I ‘act’ differently. Which indicates that while my language has improved enough to temporarily confuse them into mistaking me for a local, I just can’t seem to shake my American mannerisms. But that’s something I can live with.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

My heart nearly stopped the first time I stepped foot into an EFL classroom in Iran. Besides the room being small, there were only 4 students. I was sure the others were just late or stuck in traffic as the usual excuse goes in Tehran, but, alas, four students was it. In the US, I was accustomed to teaching classes of 25-30 students until they started being capped at 20, and I could handle them with no problem. But what on earth was I supposed to do with just four students? And on top of that, they were teenagers! I had specifically stated that I only taught adults. I thought I could regroup while they spent some time on my ice breaker activity, ‘2 truths and a lie’. After I explained what they were supposed to do, they looked at each other and then at me and said, “But we already know everything about each other.” Turns out that unlike the US where there was a mix of new and old students every semester, students here move up together semester after semester and therefore do really know everything about each other. But the same way that I was la gringa when I taught in Chile, I was the khâreji (foreign) teacher here, and so they humored me. 

I found out that in fact only two of them were teenagers and two were university students (they looked younger), and I was impressed not just by their advanced-level English skills but also by their interests and hobbies. One showed me photos of her paintings, another was in a band and both sang and rapped for me. They were equally as curious about me and what brought me here. By the end of the class, they were begging me to speak some Persian, and squealed, “She’s so goo-gooli (cute)” when I did. They insisted I write something in Persian on the board, and after warning them of my childlike handwriting, one of them oohed and ahed claiming that I wrote better than she did. I can state categorically that I did not. This first session was going so well that the secretary had to practically kick the students out so that I could get to my next class… a class of three university guys who were not curious but baffled by my mere presence in Iran. In a nutshell, it wasn’t nearly as fun or successful as the first class. 

There are a few things that are quite different about teaching here. For one, I can get thrown into a class with little notice and sometimes no time to prep. (I’ve gotten pretty good at winging it when I have to, I must say.) Another thing is that there is little materials development, a change which I gladly welcomed because God knows it’s the most time-consuming part of teaching. But perhaps the strangest thing for me was the student-teacher relationship.

You see, in the US, we kept it strictly business. The one time per semester we took classes on a field trip, we gave students our phone numbers in case they got lost or were running late, but made it very clear they were not to be used at any other time. And even then, I’d get the annoying ‘what was our homework?’ or ‘I don’t understand pg. 54’ text at 10:30pm, to which I would reply frustratedly ‘Send me an email!’ In Iran, though, it seems students and teachers often form friendships. I would see my co-workers posting pictures with students on Instagram. I’ve even had a couple of students tell me they married their university professors! Whaaaaat? It was all so strange to me. So when students asked for my number, I was extremely hesitant, but I gave it to them. When they asked me to hang out, I was even more reserved, but I went out and tried to keep the vibe professional. But eventually, I altogether gave up because I realized these friendships are the norm here. When in Iran, do as the Iranians. Besides, I didn’t have any friends yet, so who was I to reject an outing? And I actually did make friends this way. Good friends. Today, one of the students from that very first class of mine is one of my closest friends here.

I also found Iranian students to be beyond hospitable and helpful. They always offered to drive me home at night, take me grocery shopping if I didn’t have a car, or contact them if I needed anything in general. There are a few who still offer me rides when they can, telling me that spending just a few extra minutes speaking English is totally worth it. 

Because learning languages is a ‘thing’ here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a high demand for language classes anywhere else. (Ok, maybe I wasn’t looking, but still…) I have countless students who’ve been learning English since they were 5, numerous others who are simultaneously learning French (probably the second language in demand), and it seems that everyone is always looking for a private tutor (that’s also a ‘thing’) or trying to find the best institute to learn at. So many want to take the IELTS or TOEFL exam either for study or work, and though some want to immigrate, I find it incredibly refreshing when others tell me, “I love my country. I don’t want to live anywhere else.” 

There’s never a dull moment in teaching, especially ESL/EFL. With the exception of a few northern European countries, I can say pretty confidently that I’ve had at least one student from almost every country in the world. But Iranians are by far my favorite. Biased? Perhaps, but why shouldn’t I be? 

I’ll leave you with my very first memory of the EFL classroom in Iran, which was during a class observation. The topic was stereotypes of different nationalities, and before doing a listening activity, the students had to discuss what they thought the stereotypes were. I was sitting close to two young college students who were talking about the British and Americans. 

“The British are cold, I think.”

“Yah, cold and unfriendly.”

“But I think Americans are like us. They are friendly, outgoing, and have heart of gold [sic].”

My heart broke a little when I heard them liken Americans to Iranians because of their “heart of gold.” I was sure that no American anywhere in the country would ever say an Iranian had a “heart of gold”, let alone have that be their common denominator.

But anything is possible. 

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Monday, July 10, 2017

I’ll never forget my first encounter with District 12. I was sitting in a taxi, and unfamiliar with the layout of Tehran, I suddenly found myself in the midst of the steady buzzing of swarms of motorcycles coming from every which way, near stand-still traffic, heat a few degrees hotter than where I had started, and older, dingier buildings, some of which looked abandoned. It was sheer chaos. And I loved it.  

Tehran is divided into 22 municipal districts. District 1 starts in the north, and this number increases as you move roughly south and west. District 12 lands us in the Grand Bazaar area in the south of the city. If Valiasr Avenue is the spine of Tehran, then District 12 is its beating heart. In fact, if you start on the south side of Valiasr and work your way north (or vice versa), you’ll notice a drastic change in buildings, fashion, people, culture, and even slang and vocabulary. Sure northern Tehran is posh and ritzy, but District 12 is in color. It’s the real Tehran in my opinion. I used to feel intimidated by it at first because it's such a different culture. But now it's the part of town where I feel most comfortable, where I find the people to be most down-to-earth. It’s a place that exhausts most Tehranis but gives me energy. It’s the place I go to when I need a reminder of why I love this city. And I feel a little bit more alive when I do.

I’m always looking for an excuse to go to District 12, but I’m just as happy to go for no reason at all. On this particular Thursday morning in January, I was on a mission. I had heard about a unique feature of 30 Tir Street, so I booked a half day tour to explore it.

30 Tir Street

30 Tir, pronounced See-ye Teer, corresponds with July 21 and is named after the date of the massive pro-Mossadegh uprising against the Shah in 1952 in which dozens of people were killed. If you’ve been to Tehran, you’ve seen this cobblestone street just next to the National Museum. More recently it’s become a popular place for food and coffee trucks known as sayyâr

Aside from it just being a nice change from the usual asphalt, though, as you navigate 30 Tir from south to north, you’ll find a synagogue, church, and Zoroastrian fire temple sitting together harmoniously. These particular places of worship are still used today. They are not mere tourist attractions, and because of that, it’s ideal to go with a tour agency who will already have all the proper paperwork necessary to enter. 

Haim Synagogue

First is Haim Synagogue, which is best known for hosting Polish Jewish refugees during the Second World War. As the number increased, a second Ashkenazi synagogue was built adjacent to it. It’s also considered the first synagogue to have been built in an urban area away from others. Further up the street, you’ll find Holy Mary Church and directly across the street from it is Adrian Fire Temple whose flame was brought from the temple in Yazd.

Holy Mary Church

Adrian Fire Temple

I had visited churches and fire temples in Iran before. That was nothing new, but Haim was my first synagogue, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning a brief history of Judaism in Iran. It made me curious as to why these three were built on the same street. Was it on purpose, or was it pure coincidence? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer, but I will tell you that we’ve only scratched the surface of District 12. This post was just an introduction to one small corner of it. There are so many gems and so much charm here that I feel each neighborhood deserves its own shoutout and dedicated letter on my Iran A-Z.


Friday, July 7, 2017

If ever there is a holiday in Iran, there’s one place Tehranis flock to- shomâl. Shomâl means north, but it’s synonymous with other words like beach, vacation, and good weather. When my aunt was visiting the US, my parents decided to take her to the beach in Florida, south of where they live. She called up my cousin in Iran to give her an update and told her, “Yah, so this weekend, we are going to shomâl.

The neighboring northern provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran remained mostly isolated from central Iran until the early 20th century when narrow roads and tunnels were chiseled out of solid rock. This opened up a new weekend destination, particularly for Tehranis, who welcomed pleasant temperatures and a bit of R&R by the sea. The main roads leading to shomâl from Tehran are Haraz Road and Chalus Road. Decades after they've been constructed, these roads largely remain the same despite an exponential increase in both population and cars. 

As far as I know, my first time to shomâl was when I was 3 years old, and I hadn’t been back until 2015. It was my birthday, and some family friends invited me to their villa for the weekend. We took Chalus Road, and I finally got to see the spectacular scenery I had always heard about. 

We took the northeastern route out of the city and passed the well-known Shemshak and Darband Sar ski resorts on our way to the top of the mountain where we stopped for a break. They were selling âsh, and as I was having a bowl, I looked down the other side of the pass to see what awaited: hairpins all the way down the mountain. About two dozen hairpin bends and one queasy stomach later, we passed by the famous Dizin ski resort and went on to connect to Chalus Road.

Hairpins all the way down

Chalus is one of the most beautiful, scenic roads in all of Iran. It winds its way along the mountains, going through tight passes and tunnels. With the mountain on one side and steep gorges on the other, Chalus is the kind of beauty where you don’t want a camera between you and it because you know that even the most professional couldn’t possibly capture the stunning panoramic views you are witnessing.

Tunnels of Chalus Road

Having said that, Chalus is also notoriously dangerous. Why? The narrowness and rugged terrain, for one. Weather is another huge factor here because if it’s snowy or rainy, forget about it. But one of the main things is that it’s a two-way pass, and mixed with Iranians’ infamous driving habits, well, it’s a recipe for disaster. Luckily, it’s policed pretty well, especially around holidays, but nerves of steel and complete focus are solid prerequisites to navigate. It’s actually quite intimidating because on the one hand you really have to concentrate on the road and be wary of oncoming traffic, and on the other, you’re wondering if that stone that’s been quietly sitting atop the hill for centuries will suddenly decide to move that day.

Chalus Road

Chalus Road

Needless to say, my first experience on this road was an unforgettable one. I had leaned my head back and was peering through the sunroof at the cliffs (and thinking happy thoughts) while Kako Band’s Dance in Fire was playing. Something about the ruggedness of the beats matched the atmosphere to make it the perfect Chalus Road music. Along the way, there were places to stop and grab some lamb or liver and kidney kabobs or pick up some local produce and dairy. What I enjoyed the most was seeing vendors selling bottles of doogh mahali, local doogh, which were being kept cool in the natural spring water streaming down from the mountainside. I was almost a little disappointed (but relieved) when we arrived because for me, Chalus was just as exciting as finally seeing the Caspian Sea for the first time since I was 3!

My first Caspian sunset since I was 3!

I had always heard about Chalus and Haraz Roads becoming ghofl, locked. I would imagine R.E.M.'s Everybody Hurts video when I heard these stories, except instead of abandoning their cars at the end, Iranians apparently started picnicking or smoking hookah on the side of the street. And friends would tell me tales about how they drove to Chalus Road only to turn around two hours later and come back to Tehran because of the gridlock. Given Iranians’ penchant for exaggeration, I took it with a grain of salt. But just recently for the Eid holiday, I had plans to take a day trip to shomâl. I was going with a tour agency who surprised me at 4:30 am with the news that we were actually taking Haraz Road, not Firuzkuh as they had originally stated. What should have taken an hour max took 4.5 hours (and we weren’t even a quarter of the way there yet). Haraz was utterly gofl. After breakfast at Polur, the tour continued, but I decided I was out. I wasn’t spending my holiday trapped in that madness, so I hitched a ride back (but not before snapping some shots of Mount Damavand). Later, everyone told me that if Haraz was in that condition, then Chalus could have only been worse! 

Mt. Damavand and traffic

So a word to the wise: avoid shomâl at all costs during an Iranian holiday (unless you plan on going a couple of days in advance and either returning earlier or a couple of days later). I imagine shomâlis must dread holidays knowing that Tehranis are on their way. And I can’t help but think of how chaotic those small town roads must become once they’re flooded with half the population of the capital! But, when you go at any other time, absolutely take Chalus Road. You won’t regret it!

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Truth be told, I had never heard of Bandar Anzali. But there was a holiday in the middle of Tehran’s scorching summer, so my cousin and I decided to take a short road trip. A quick getaway for Tehranis means going to shomâl (the north), and the province of Mazandaran is usually their escapade of choice. Lucky for us, we would avoid the heavy crowds because this port city is in the neighboring northern province of Gilan. 

One of the things that I love about shomâl is that the scenery suddenly becomes lusher, with bushy trees, grassy hills, and all things green. As humidity creeps into the air, you can feel your skin plumpen up as if it can breathe again, and you wonder how it ever managed in the dry Tehran heat. 

Shells collected on the beach

After an early start and no traffic, we arrived in Rasht about five hours after setting out. With no actual plans as to what we were going to do, we went straight to the shores of the Caspian. It was the perfect day- cloudy, breezy, and cool (chilly, even), with low humidity and just a drizzle of rain. Families were out wading along the shore and children were playing in the sand. There was a newly engaged young guy, Mohammad, who was spelling out his fiancee’s name with shells and seaweed on the beach (in English letters no less. It tickles and puzzles me when Iranians opt to use another alphabet instead of their own.) He was asking his aunt to take pictures of him in front of his creative design so he could send it to Parisa, and his aunt relentlessly taunted him for already being so zan zalil, henpecked. After a nice welcome from the sea and still no plans, we bid Mohammad the best of luck, got back in the car, and drove another 45 minutes to Bandar Anzali, where there was some lagoon that my cousin had heard of.

Mohammad's loving dedication to Parisa

I had no idea what was in store. We found a hidden dock and opted for the hour-long boat ride since we had time to kill. After putting on panchos and life vests, we hopped in the motorboat and sped through the wetlands, passing men with fishing rods and houses built on wooden stilts before entering the open water, home to hundreds of migratory birds. That’s when the rain picked up. The drops pricked our faces like needles as our boat bounced up and down zipping through water. Considering the dry oven I had just left, I was having the time of my life under the rain and didn’t think it could get any better.

Cruising through the canebrake

Fishermen along the route to the lagoon

And then we were suddenly surrounded by patches of green marsh with pink Caspian lotus flowers. I don’t remember how deep it was. All I know is that those beautiful flowers had to push through an awful lot of sludge and darkness to breach the surface of the water into light. (How very poetic.) I spent some time taking photos, observing the flowers, and quite simply basking in the delight of having encountered such an amazing place unlike anywhere else I’d seen in Iran. We then rode to the harbor where enormous ships were docked, and as we headed back, we slowed down along the canebrake to observe the birds and take in the peaceful atmosphere.

The Sefid River, Lagoon, and other water passageways feed into the Caspian, so as we later explored the town on foot, we came across more houses on stilts whose backs faced the water where their boats were tied. The style was actually rather reminiscent of Chiloe Island in Chile. All sorts of cows, chickens, and hens also seemed to be roaming rather freely- the true definition of "free range". Later that evening, we took a stroll along the harbor where we were earlier that day. Bandar Anzali was a lot like Ahvaz in the sense that it was calm and easy-going. It must be a characteristic of cities located around water. 

If you’re in the north, I would recommend a quick stop in this port town, which also happens to be Iran’s center of caviar production! 


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Neither Ahvaz nor the entire province of Khuzestan had ever ranked very high on my list of places to visit in Iran, but I figured since I wanted to eventually see everywhere in the country, and it was Nowruz (pretty much the only visitable time in Ahvaz) I might as well go ahead and see it. Maybe it was the calm water, maybe the friendly people, or maybe the carefree southern bandari (port) culture, but Ahvaz had character. It had soul. And it turned out to be one of my favorite cities in Iran. 

White Bridge

I headed straight to the nearby city of Khorramshahr upon arrival. As we drove along the Arvand Rood, the driver asked me, "See that white truck driving across the river?" I saw it. "That's Iraq." I knew that Khorramshahr had been one of the first cities ravaged by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and was left virtually a ghost town in the years that followed. What I didn't realize was just how unnervingly close it was to the border.


I briefly stopped at the Jam’e Mosque whose bullet-ridden mosaic facade still bears the scars of the brutal 8-year war. Then I stopped at the Holy Defense Museum (in Persian, the Iran-Iraq war is referred to as defâye moqadas, the holy defense), dedicated to the estimated one million Iranian lives lost in the war. Walking through the memorial and seeing the belongings of men young and old was absolutely heart-wrenching, thought-provoking, and humbling. On the surrounding grounds was a good deal of artillery which was now being ridden like toys by children with no concept or memory of this ruthless war or its consequences. 

Bullet holes still remain in Khorramshahr's Jam'e Mosque

Memorabilia from the Holy Defense Museum

Children play with the artillery at the Holy Defense Museum

We drove through Abadan on the way back to Ahvaz, and I enjoyed an unforgettable sunset. I watched the rays of orange and yellow glisten off the water as the sun melted into the lagoon just around the Shadegan Wildlife Refuge.

Sunset in Abadan

The next day, I spent some time exploring Ahvaz, 'the city of bridges.' A total of eight, the most famous are the White Bridge (the symbol of Ahvaz built by a German engineer and his wife), the Black Bridge (or Railway Bridge), and the Seventh Bridge which has a beautiful artificial waterfall and is particularly picturesque at night. Walking along the Karun River, the city was alive with people out picnicking, strolling, or taking a ride on the boats. 

Boats seen from the White Bridge

Seventh Bridge has an artificial waterfall

White Bridge at night

I was told that I couldn’t miss the street food in Lashkar Abad, and it turned out to be one of my greatest memories. This long street has falafel, samosa, and rotisserie chicken stands on either side, and cars tailgate down playing loud bandari music. On a street full of the same type of restaurants, there was one that was especially crowded, so I decided it had to be good. (A quick note to germaphobes: don’t go to Lashkar Abad!) I popped in front of the cashier and said “One!”, and he promptly gave me a baguette. Then in true American fashion, I hopped to the back of the line and watched as people clawed and pushed their way around to fill their sandwich first. I was so mesmerized that I decided to just observe the goings-on. I ended up near the cook who was busy deep frying as quickly as he possibly could to satisfy the hungry mob. Sensing my amateur status, he suddenly turned to me and said, “Give me your bread. You’ve been waiting a while.” (Actually, I hadn’t.) I handed it to him and he grabbed it with his bare hands, stuffed it full of falafel, and shoved it back in my direction so I could move to the other side and pile it high with toppings. Maybe it was the extra germs from having been handled by several pairs of bare (and surely unwashed) hands, but it was the single most delicious falafel sandwich I’ve had to this day. So I didn't stop there. As long as I was in the south, I had to try their samosas. With just the right kick of spice, they didn’t disappoint either. As I was taking in my surroundings and trying to find a taxi, it started to gently rain. A perfect end to the evening.

The most delicious falafel at the most crowded stand

The scene at Lashkar Abad

4 things to know about Ahvazis:

1. They love their Ray-Bans. It’s kind of a joke in Iran that Ahvazis and Abadanis won’t even let you in their cities without a slick pair.

2. They passionately support the Brazilian national soccer team. I saw so many Brazilian flags while I was in the region that I started to doubt where I was. And then there was the Brazilian soccer team-themed falafel stand in Lashkar Abad which proudly claimed to have two branches: #1 in Lashkar Abad and #2 in São Paulo! And just in case you need proof:

Branch 1: Lashkar Abad, Branch 2: Sao Paulo

3. For having endured so many hardships during the war, they are a remarkably cheerful bunch. These night owls seem to spend a lot of time outdoors picnicking, camping, and smoking hookah in parks. Almost every car plays music at full blast, and most of the passengers are dancing inside. My first night in the hotel, I awoke at 3:30 am to the blaring sounds of bandari music. When I peaked out of the window, I noticed a few cars had stopped, and the people, including a bride and groom, had gotten out and were dancing in the middle of the street. 

4. On the opposite side of the spectrum, they are also hot-tempered (at least in my experience). I witnessed four fights in the four days I was there. The one that caused me the most alarm was in Lashkar Abad when one guy went after another with a glass bottle and then threw basically anything else he could get his hands on. 


Ahvaz gets a bad rap because it suffers a great deal from horrific dust storms, choking pollution, and scorching heat. If you plan to go, do so in mid-March around the Persian New Year. The weather is absolutely superb at that time, and flowers are blooming, making for beautiful scenery. Don’t even think about going in the summer when the sun is most unforgiving and temperatures reach an unfathomable 125°F! 

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