How to Pack for Kilimanjaro

Let me start with a few confessions.

Confession #1: I love a good capsule wardrobe for travel.

Confession #2: I admire people who can put 3 weeks of clothing into one carryon bag.

Confession #3: While I’m hardly “fashion forward” I do try to look my best at home and when I travel.

However, when I’m climbing a mountain, I’m all about comfort and safety so the above confessions are pretty much tossed out the window.

Whew, now that’s out of the way…Once you’ve committed to Kilimanjaro, you are going to get two things in abundance: advice and packing lists. Even the most well intentioned friends will have you over packed for this journey. Trust me when I say: Don’t. Do. It.

Before you run for the hills in tears, allow me to offer some advice. Do read the packing list from your trip organizer. Think about what you need, what you can borrow, etc. (Not so shameless plug: review my beg, buy or borrow post for ideas). Take a deep breath.

The best way, IMO, to tackle your packing list is to break it into two parts. The first is what your porter carries. While this is a godsend come day three, porters are only allowed to carry so much. Spend a few minutes deciding what you really need versus what’s a safety net.

2015-03-28 05.16.31
In case you thought I was joking. Our Porter and Guide doing the required gear “weigh-in” before we started climbing.

The second list is what you want in your own day pack. You don’t have a weight restriction for your own pack. But, you’ll enjoy your climb A LOT more if you don’t burden yourself with unnecessary items.

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All ready to be packed! A mix of Kilimanjaro items from pack list #1 and #2

Kilimanjaro Pack List #1. (Again, this is what your porter carries for you. Modify the quantity of items based on the duration of your climb. I did the Rongai Route, which is six days. Other routes are shorter so you’ll need less clothing.)

  • 6 pairs socks. Invest in heavy-duty running or hiking socks so your heels and toes have some “cushion.”
  • 3 dry weave type shirts, short sleeve
  • 2 dry weave type shirts, long sleeve
  • 1 pair of hiking pants (converter style that double as shorts are best—in a fabric that dries out fast)
  • 1 pair extra thick, wool socks*
  • 2-3 pairs long underwear/base layers (top and bottom)*
  • 1 pair of heavy duty down pants, ideally wind/water proof (think ski pants)*
  • 1 all weather down jacket*
  • Winter hat*
  • Gloves*
  • Neck warmer, scarf*
  • Hand/foot warmers*
  • Select toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, travel size deodorant, bug repellant, sunscreen. That’s all you need. This is a hike, not a beauty pageant.)
  • 1 Headlamp and one small flashlight—invest in a good, light LED headlamp, you’ll thank yourself later.
  • 1 Sleeping bag (Depending on how much your sleeping bag weighs, these may have to in your backpack)
  • 1 Sleeping bag insert/sheet

* items are for the final climb to Uhuru Peak. What’s odd about packing for Kilimanjaro is that half your gear is for the final 12 hours of the climb.

Kilimanjaro Personal Pack List #2. (What you carry up the mountain)

  • Water bottle—Insulated is best but a regular bottle will work
  • Camera
  • Book or journal if you use them
  • Rain jacket
  • Rain poncho
  • Warm fleece jacket or “outer layer”
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun screen and/or hat
  • Passport, ID and cash. (There is nothing to buy on Kilimanjaro so you really don’t “need” cash. But, if you bring cash on your climb its best to keep it on your person)
  • Hard candy (bring it, if you don’t use it the porters will HAPPILY accept it)
  • Starbucks Via packets (what can I say, I need my caffeine)

Put these items in a Ziploc or dry bag inside your own pack:

  • Band-Aids and moleskin
  • Sandwich bags (if you forget to water proof your boots, or the water proofing fails, put fresh socks on, add bags and get back on the trail. Thank MacGyver)
  • 1 pair of clean socks
  • Travel pack of kleenex
  • Any meds that you take regularly
  • Hand sanitzer, wet wipes

Not referenced: dry bags. Invest in some dry bags for your clothes. Don’t be a smarty and think your stuff won’t get wet. After getting soaked on the Inka Trail, I own several different try bags. My favorite were from a now closed local store, Hudson Trail Outfitters. REI, LLBean, etc., have decent ones. When purchasing dry bags, make sure the item has  a very tight seal, otherwise its worthless.

Pro tip: Put everything in your dry bags and weigh them before you depart. Bags often add unplanned weight to your items. Depending on the final weight or your gear, you may need to shuffle and repack so your porter isn’t breaking any park rules.

Two items I packed that, in hindsight, weren’t needed: mosquito spray and after bite (think: itch reliever). There are pretty much zero mosquitos on Kilimanjaro.

The final word goes to cameras. My preferred camera is a larger, multi-lens digital camera. Because of space and weight, I decided to bring the small “point and shoot” seen above. I was worried about the quality of photos but that was wasted energy.

Most camera battery’s (and iPhone’s) freeze half way to Uhuru Peak. Your best bet to capture those YOLO images is to bring an extra battery and keep it and your camera tucked inside your jacket. The warmth is usually enough to keep the battery from draining.

Happy packing (and climbing)!

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The start of the Rongai Route, Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa.

Facts (and Fictions) about Climbing Kilimanjaro

If climbing Kilimanjaro is on your “bucket list” you’ll find plenty of information about the climb. Complete strangers will transform into smiling, well-intentioned people who offer you counsel. Some of it is sage advice, some not so much.

Annually, about 25,000 people attempt to climb what is the highest free standing mountain in Africa. Of those visitors, estimated success rates according to Kilimanjaro National Park are less than thirty-percent for five-day routes.

Less than half reach Uhuru Peak (the Summit) doing the six-day route I climbed. An eight-day route promises the best chance for success. That’s because it provides the best amount of time to become acclimatized. Although I had horrible altitude sickness, I did summit Kilimanjaro, and offer a little “myth busting” for fellow travelers.

Fact. Your guide checks your oxygen and pulse rate each night.
It’s a painless process that tracks your overall health during the climb. Guides are monitoring your body’s ability to adjust to the thinning atmosphere. An oxygen rate below 60 will, however, will result in you being sent down to lower altitudes.

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My pre-Summit oxygen check. Why do I look distressed? Because my oxygen levels went from a stellar 99-97% to 88%. In retrospect, a sign of a long, tough night ahead.

Fiction. Guides will turn you back at the slightest hint of a problem.
Guides are there to help to ensure you reach Uhuru. Safely. Be open and honest about everything you are feeling. Got a headache? Feet hurt? Speak up.

I was very open that I have asthma, and cannot stress the importance of that to my ultimate success. Guides kept an extra close eye on my breathing and slowed my pace considerably at lower altitudes. While I H-A-T-E-D being stuck at the end of the line, I needed all that extra stored strength and energy.

Fact &Fiction. You are going to puke.
Not everyone will but it is not uncommon for even the fittest hikers to vomit on the way up to Uhuru Peak. Stomach upset is commonly brought on by a combination of fatigue and altitude sickness. Be prepared to set your jaw, and get right with it. Then keep climbing.

Fiction. Porters can carry everything you pack.
Not even close, because they’re lugging food, stoves and tents. Each person is allowed to pack a maximum of 30lbs of gear for your porter to carry. Anything else is on you. Literally. I try to Pack light, and pack smart. I carry rain gear, snacks, sunglasses, Cottonelle wipes, an extra layer, hat, camera and water, and personal medication/sunblock.

Fact. The most successful climbs to the Summit have a 1:1 or 2:1 guide-to traveler ratio on Summit day.
My tour had the same amount of guides as climbers for our climb to the Summit, allowing for personalized attention, motivation and medical care (if necessary). Worst-case scenario, a sick traveler can return to lower altitudes without disrupting other climbers. In this case, I was the sick traveler

Fiction. Summiting is all about physical preparation. Being physically prepared is critical, but only half the battle. You have to be emotionally ready and mentally resolved. While training, put yourself in situations that are mentally exhausting, boring and uncomfortable. Because come Summit night, you will be mentally exhausted on top of dealing with a host of potential discomforts. For me, getting to the top meant struggling through asthma, and overcoming altitude sickness. That  had everything to do with mental willpower and resolve.

Fact. Your guide knows all.
Don’t second-guess your guide, Kilimanjaro is his office. Get input on your gear before you take off for Kilimanjaro National Park. Chances are you over-packed and they are an invaluable resource for sorting out what is useful vs. what is weight.

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Our second guide, “G-Man” who decided it was time for me to rest and have a snack. Who needs snacks when you can take selfies?

Fiction. Guides travel with Oxygen, to dispense if someone is having difficulty during the climb.
Yes, guides do travel with oxygen. No, oxygen is not prophylactic. That’s a combination red flag/white flag. Once you require oxygen, your climb is done, and your hike returning down to lower altitudes has begun.

Fact. Guides and porters liked to be thanked.
If you think your guide and porters did a great job getting you to Uhuru Peak, don’t be shy. Tell them. It’s a source of pride for them. Trinkets like high quality wool socks are also appreciated. But, pro-tip, if you really enjoyed your trip and want to do something unique, offer to get them a banana beer on the way back down the mountain. It’s an acquired taste but a not-to-be missed experience.


Planning for a Trip to Kilimanjaro

Exactly one year ago, I completed the number-one item on my bucket list; traveling to Tanzania, and summiting Kilimanjaro.

Anyone preparing to climb Kilimanjaro (“Kili” as it’s called) can find an abundance of information on the Internet. In fact, there is so much information it’s overwhelming.

Add to that friends, family and strangers who’ve never climbed a hill offering their best intentioned “helpful suggestions” about what they’ve heard about what to pack, proper physical preparedness, and who knows what all and your eyes may very well cross.

I listened to it all because, frankly I was a little intimidated. I’ve hiked Nepal, Colorado, New Hampshire, the Inca Trail, etc. Still, I knew enough to know to take it seriously.

I was right.

Among the “challenging” vacations I’ve taken, Kili was by far the most physically demanding. Psychologically, it rates third, but this is not a trip to take on a whim.

Unless, of course, whim is the usual way you approach things. For others visiting Tanzania for the first time, I jotted down a few insights from my experience. I winnowed it down to the things and tips I found valuable.

But first, let me set the stage. To view Kili from the right perspective—consider it’s the same perspective as viewed out of a Boeing’s window.

This is the view of Moshi and surrounding areas roughly half way up Kilimanjaro. Breathtaking (literally and figuratively)!

If it’s not the view out of an airplane window, sooner or later something about Kilimanjaro’s landscape will remind you of somewhere else you’ve been. Because climbing it means traveling through a little bit of everywhere, and a series of climates from sea level along the way up to 19,800 feet.

Beginning at the equator, ascending through lush rainforest, then on to grasslands, then alpine deserts, and finally arctic summit. Temperature variation ranges from hot and humid, to “I can’t feel my face or my legs…we have to go back down?”

With that in mind, the few things I found most important when climbing Kili are:

1.     Plan your trip at least six months in advance. As mentioned, this is not a “last minute” trip, unless you already have everything you need, and maintain a very active lifestyle. I started researching tour companies, gear, training, vaccinations, visa, medical documentation—those little things take big chunks of time. I maintain you need six months to get it everything done and train sufficiently (mentally and physically).

My favorite resource for training is the book Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro . It’s an easy read that is direct, and accurate. I customized my training based on what the authors did. Helpful Hint: Do cardio wearing your daypack to help your body adjust to this added weight, feel and wear before you climb. I also urge adding yoga, stretching and weight training.

2.     Bring used gear to the climb. Allow time to break in gear, and to get comfortable with it. Take time to organize and test all gear in as many types of weather as you can find. Pick the coldest day to walk in your Summit down jacket, wearing a properly weighted (35lbs) daypack. Or walks in rain gear, adding a rain poncho to keep everything dry. This also helps to mentally prepare for what’s ahead.

I believe there is a psychology behind packing (and over packing). The more gear is used before a climb, the more confidence there is in it, and the less one needs—or wants. Superfluous items are just added weight.

3.     Choose your travel companions wisely. Your success and safety directly relate to the tour company you select and your climbing guide.

Our guide estimated there are about 300 tour company’s operating in Tanzania. Anything over ten requires good old-fashioned “elbow grease.” The website Kili Adventures has lots of traveler reviews on the different outfitters, look at Trip Advisor and network your friends for recommendations.

Specifically examine: were travelers satisfied with their experience, the service and search for those intangible things especially important to you. I decided to travel with a company that provided jobs to Tanzanians. I also wanted a team that had worked together. Finally, I was interested in being exposed to local customs and culture.

Before booking, here are a few questions to ask the operator:

·      How large can I expect our group to be?

·      How many guides climb the Summit with travelers?

·      How many times has your guide summited?

·      If you have a specific a medical condition, asthma let’s say, ask if the operator has experience in and is comfortable dealing with that issue.

We had three different conference calls with our travel operator to review the above, and travel insurance. Don’t be bashful.

4.     Shyness will be overcome, or it will do you in. I’ll put it this way. Altitude sickness cannot be described. To experience it, as I did, is an entirely different perspective. You shift from livin’ the dream, to waking up in a nightmare. Symptoms can include sleeplessness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Of all of these, at 16,000 feet, the last symptom is the most miserable. I’m not saying that I experienced it (because that would be embarrassing) but modesty goes out the window and over the side. Not generally life threatening, altitude sickness is serious because it can mean not summiting. Listen to your guide, listen to your body, and then listen to your guide again.

5.     Be thorough and thoughtful about what you pack. You’ll receive packing lists from your tour provider in addition to opinions about what to bring.

The onus is yours to determine what you need. I prefer traveling light so I have room to pick up souvenirs. Of all the things we were told to bring, the five I most appreciated were:

·      Wet Wipes. If you are staying at a hut, you have access to a shower of numbingly cold water. Wipes are a great way to clean up and for emergencies (I’ve been told), so consider wipes appropriate for private parts. A few ten packs are better than a family-sized container.

·      Tent lights. These small, light-weight lights can be found at any outdoor or recreational store. If you are sharing a tent, these help because you don’t have to use your headlamp, and can avoid blinding your tent mate. Also useful for late-night nature visits.

·      (Extra) Camera battery. Cold drains camera batteries. Bring an extra one, or a portable iPhone battery. You don’t want your device to die before Summit night.

·      Electrolyte tablets. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this last-minute addition to my bag. Be it Gatorade tablets, goop or generic electrolytes, helps avoid dehydration and provides extra energy for Summit night. My tablets were climb saving, and helped prevent even more serious issues of altitude sickness.

Kilimanjaro is truly the adventure of a lifetime. Despite my “extremely mild, nothing to see here, don’t worry about me, I’ll catch up” altitude sickness, summiting was a very proud moment. I’m so glad I did it and recognize my next journey has a tough act to follow.

Kibo Hut: Base Camp before you start the final climb.

If you plan to climb Kili, I wish you tenacity, perseverance and happiness as you reach Uhuru. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. I’m not an expert, but I love to talk travel, and collect stamps on my passport.

Kilimanjaro: A Mystic Welcome

Kili National Park
No matter what route you decide take when climbing Kilimanjaro, your trek starts here. You (or your guide) have to register and obtain park permits at the Kilimanjaro National Park’s main gate. The fog when we arrived created a bit of a mystic pre-trek feeling. Photo circa: March 2015.

Kawaha Shamba: A Tour for Coffee Devotes

Coffee is the lifeline to a good day.” –Me

Coffee, Java, Black Gold, Kahawa in Swahili, whatever you call it, my days start with two things: coffee and a trip to the gym. Take away the second and I’m grumpy. Take away the first and I am not fit for human company. It’s gotten to the point where I travel with a stash of acceptable coffee in case I’m someplace (gasp!) that does not serve coffee. (There is a certain irony to this. While I survive on coffee, I cannot actually make my own cup of coffee. Seriously, but that’s another story for another day). Thankfully this wasn’t an issue in Tanzania.

Following bananas, coffee is Tanzania’s second biggest cash crop, and it’s readily available. Granted, you won’t find Starbucks at every corner but coffee is at all hotels and restaurants. Curiously, coffee at the hotels is instant. Outside of coffee at hotels, there are coffee shops or cafe’s, such as Union Cafe, popping up for residents, ex-Pats and travelers.

Stamps On My Passport
AfricaFe, the instant coffee that is prevalent at Tanzanian hotels. It’s a bit like Goldilocks. One scoop is not strong enough, two scoops is too strong but a scoop and half is just about right!

But there’s more to Union Cafe than welcoming travelers and locals. It’s part of the Kilimanjaro Native Co-Operative Union. This is Africa’s oldest co-op and represents more than 60,000 farmers around Kilimanjaro.

The co-op’s main focus is helping more than 800 farmers secure a fair price, of 2500/Tsch per kg, for their coffee beans at auction. Before picking season, the co-op offers workshops to help farmers provide the best quality beans. It’s these beans that generate the best price. And the best price can be traced back to how someone picks, washes and dry’s their coffee beans.

For curious coffee drinkers, you can visit part of the co-op called Kahawa Shamba, for a tour. A visit lasts about 90 minutes. During the time you will learn boatloads about coffee: how it’s harvested, how to pick the beans, how to wash them, how to roast and grind them, and how to brew a cup of coffee. Following the tour, guests are treated to a traditional Tanzania lunch.

Stamps On My Passport
Going old school: grinding our coffee beans on the Kahawa Shamba Coffee Tour.

If you liked the coffee, I highly recommend buying a bag of beans. They are fantastic and the coffee makes a thoughtful gift. You can purchase these at the co-op or Union Cafe. And, here’s some expert advice from Epicurious about how to store your coffee so it stays fresh long after you are home.

Stamps On My Passport
Have you ever roasted coffee beans on an open fire? Me, neither. The smell was heavenly.

Toa Nafasi: A Tanzanian Education

It started with a brochure.

Living in Washington DC, it seems silly to mail a passport off to another country’s embassy when they are all within 1 or 2 miles of my own house. In case you forgot, I had a terrible passport renewal experience in 2014. That add’s to my hesitation around mailing my most precious document.

While I was at the Tanzanian embassy to get my visa, Mr. Os was looking at the pamphlets and literature. I’d love to go on Safari again, but I have very strict criteria around this (that’s another story, however.) So those brochures were out. But, then he handed me this and said “isn’t that where you are staying?” Talk about serendipity.

Stamps on my Passport
The brochure that sent us back to school.

I got home, read the brochure more thoroughly and then read a few of Toa Nofasi’s blogs. After completely my very “scientific” research, I decided I had enough data to verify this was a “legit” organization. I fired off an email, asking if we could bring some school supplies during our trip. Honestly, I was not really sure what to expect. Boy, was I surprised.

And it followed with some emails.

In a few days I had a very warm response from the organizations founder, Sarah. She told me a bit about the project, how she got started and provided a list of potential supplies we could bring. I liked her instantly (interestingly, she grew up in DC and lived in Manhattan before moving to Tanzania. Hello, immediate connection!) and her style. It was a mixed of open, friendly but straight forward.

We ended up exchanging A LOT of emails. I think we covered life stories, climbing Kilimanjaro, an agreement to bring some shirts for her students and in exchange her Mom giving me a lit to the airport. Oh, and we also arranged a visit to the school.

Until Finally We Got Schooled

In Swahili, Toa Nafasi means “provide a chance.” This pilot program has come up with a holistic approach to provide a chance for children with learning difficulties. It’s also providing jobs for village women in the form of teacher training.

What we observed, with interest, were massive classrooms with 80 students and one teacher. Just observing from the back you could see how a child with learning difficulty would struggle. With the help of Toa Nafasi, these kids leave their classroom with a handful of other students for help with language, math and overall comprehension.

Stamps on my Passport
This is a level two classroom in Moshi, Tanzania. The teacher to student ratio is roughly 80/1.

We spent the morning playing with the students. (They loved the jump ropes we brought. The bouncing glow balls were a hit. Orgami was like “mind blown.” Until we tried to show them how to make a swan on their own. But, the thing they loved most was the iPhone. They were enthralled with taking, and looking at, pictures of themselves. We probably could have beaten Ellen DeGeneres for biggest selfie. And if that wasn’t enough, video taping the young boys dancing was an hour of entertainment. We developed a swarm of student paparazzi. Each of them wanting to look at the video or have a picture taken.)

The students were enthralled with the iPhone. We actually couldn't fit them all in this photo, though they did try.
The students were enthralled with the iPhone. We actually couldn’t fit them all in this photo, though they did try.

Following some good clean fun, we listened to Sarah talk about the project to visiting administrators. This is where things came to life for me. She spoke with conviction about how the students need skills to navigate their own village. Not to attend Harvard or Oxford.

Class Dismissed

While that’s not the “American Way” I couldn’t agree more with this approach. Helping people often means helping them in the ways they need help. Not helping them in ways we *think* they need help.

For instance, their village in Tanzania is land locked. Knowing marine life for these kids is ridiculous. Not because they shouldn’t know but because the odds of them being in a situation where this information is applicable are extremely remote. Instead, it’s about helping them with syllables, reading, numbers and simple math problems. Things that will be very relevant in their village.

I can never do this project justice and refer you to this story on Calvin, one of the students enrolled in the project. Calvin is a doll and I agree with Sarah’s assessment. He’s got some more learning to do but the individualized and small group work is making a tremendous improvement in his life. It was rewarding to see how Sarah’s outside the box thinking is helping Calvin as well as other students.

The Toa Nafasi Project is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization. You can read more about Toa Nafasi on their blog. If you are interested in contributing or volunteering, you can reach the project at or on their website I don’t want to speak for Sarah and say that visits are routinely offered. However, if you are offered the opportunity, I highly recommend it. It will open your eyes to a variety of things: education, travel, and charitable giving to name a few.

And, for me, this is why I travel. I made a new friend in Sarah and was exposed to things I never anticipated in Tanzania.

The Magic Bus

Riding the bus in Tanzania was one of my favorite experiences. If that sounds strange, trust me, I know. It’s not as though buses are unique to Tanzania. And, living in a large urban area in the US, I am no stranger to public transportation.

I really cannot pinpoint why this experience was so much fun. Maybe it’s because at home buses confuse me. Conceptually, I know you go to the bus stop and look at the schedule for your particular line or route. But, I can never get my head around the cross-town versus up-town versus out-of-town and inevitably end up on the wrong bus. Laugh it up, I do. Perhaps my Tanzanian bus rides were so memorable because I got to conquer this strange bus phobia that I have developed since living in Manhattan.

Our guide showed up to take us to BBQ, declaring we would take the bus because “you must experience it.” So, three tourists walked down the street with our Kili guide, Israel. And we waited. To pass the time peppered Israel with questions:

How do you know when the bus will come?

How much does it cost?

How long do you wait?

What if the bus is crowded?

Why don’t you take a taxi?

This is another reason why Israel should be sainted. These are the silliest questions. If he had just met us, they probably would border on stupid. Or even offensive. But when you’ve spent six days camping (and in my case also having massive altitude sickness), you get to know people really well. He answered every single question, sometimes laughing at us, but answered them never-the-less.

Back to the bus. In Tanzania, buses are not the large motor coach style you see in the US or Europe. They are smaller, almost van like vehicles. If you are picturing a 70’s style Volkswagen bus you are on the right track. I’m sure there is a route but it’s not posted on a sign anywhere. Israel just brought us to the street and declared, “we wait here for the bus.”

Each bus has the equivalent of a ticket-taker who sticks their head out the window, scouting for passengers. Remember, there are not “official”  stops. This person has eagle eyes for people waving down the next ride. Once passengers are spotted, they jump out, open the door and collect your fare. Sometimes, if there are lots of passengers, the ticket-taker will hustle everyone on the bus and collect the money inside. You can get a sense for this entire exchange with this video.

The first bus zipped right by, it was so packed they couldn’t fit any more standing passengers. But the second bus had our number. Albeit, a number for standing room only. And yet, packed in like sardines, the Yooner and I giggled like we were in kindergarten as we zipped through Moshi toward our BBQ date.

My standing room only bus view.

If you are uber-adventurous a bus ride through Tanzania is probably up your alley. For the rest of us, I probably wouldn’t recommend it. A lot of first impressions are (e.g., staring, chakachua) are prominent on the bus. One could easily wind up in parts unknown with no way home. The exception of course is if you have an amazing guide who is willing to share this experience. It’s not a magic bus in the literal sense or in reference to the song. But, its always magical experience to do something out of your normal routine.

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