India 2011 - Part 5 - Thekkady

We leave Munnar and head to Thekkady to ride elephants, have a nice lunch and stay in a very strange hotel.

Wind and Rain and Elephants

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on February 26, 2012

I love elephants – I suspect most people do, if not the physical reality of one charging towards them, then at least the idea of elephants is very appealing. There’s something so compelling about their slow, plodding nature, their fascinating prehensile trunks and their leathery skin. And when you look into the eye of an elephant you can’t help but think you’re looking into the eyes of an equal. Elephants are the state animal of Kerala, which may surprise those people who’ve always assumed that Kerala was about beaches and backwaters. Our trip in November 2011 took us up into the mountains of Kerala and offered us a couple of opportunities to get up close and personal with elephants. On our first day in Kerala our driver wouldn’t let us ride the elephants at the Dreamlands Spice Park. It wasn’t on our official itinerary, he told us, we had to wait until a couple of days later in Thekkady when we could ride elephants at the elephant park.

I had assumed that we’d have a pretty hot and sweaty time since Kerala is quite a long way south in India but we soon discovered that there was a good reason why it’s such a green and lush state – quite simply, it rains a lot. When we arrived at the Elephant Camp, the weather was awful. Half a dozen soggy nellies were plodding through the mud with eager Indian families perched on their backs carrying golf umbrellas.
There should be a variety of elephant experiences on offer at the Elephant Camp – rides short and long, giving the elephants a bath, watching them move logs around and feeding them - and even a residential elephant safari. We wanted to have a longer ride and to feed the elephants but were told that they were very busy and because of the awful weather, only the short elephant ride was available. They tried to sell us tickets for a display of the local martial art – a kicking and swinging swords around affair called Kalaripayattu which we really didn’t fancy – and for Kathikali dancing. We’d been dragged to a Kathikali dance display the previous time we’d been in Kerala and both vowed that life really was too short. One Kathikali display is quite possibly one more than the average human needs to see. We held firm – elephants or nothing and handed over our money. I believe we paid around 200 rupees each – or just under three pounds.

We rarely understood our driver during the 4 days we were together but we’re pretty sure he told us to just go and wait with the other customers and we’d be called forward to mount the elephant when it was our turn. Unfortunately it seemed we were the only people who’d been told this and it never did seem to be our turn. We weren’t too bothered because we thought that if we waited the rain might stop but after 20 minutes or so our driver strode up and had ‘words’ with the elephant handler about why it was taking so long. The combination of our English tendency to let everyone else go first – especially when it’s ‘their country’ - and our desire to avoid the rain since clearly we English aren’t familiar with getting wet, meant we weren’t actually at all bothered about waiting.

Elephant riding isn’t new to me. I’ve done it several times in India, in Sri Lanka and in Thailand and in Sri Lanka I recall we were even allowed to sit on their heads and tuck our feet behind their ears like extras from a Tarzan film and then walk the elephants through a river – really quite exciting stuff. Getting onto an elephant doesn’t faze me in the slightest. My husband is not quite so relaxed about such things and I’d noticed that he was looking rather nervous as we stepped forwards to get onto the elephant.

The Kerala elephant saddle is a nice design, ideal for people of medium height or above. I’m just over five foot seven and it was perfect for me. Hubby is taller but with similar length lets. You sit on these saddles much like you would on a horse – one leg on either side – and instead of stirrups, there’s a rail to rest your feet on. Children and little people can’t reach the rail and we’d noticed they tended to look pretty nervous or to get themselves wedged in between taller people so that they couldn’t slide. I sat at the front, Tony perched behind to ensure that if he started to slip he could grab me and take me with him. The rain had pretty much stopped so we didn’t ask for an umbrella.

Before we could set off we had to wait whilst a group who’d just finished riding our girl – a 30 year old by the name of Lakshmi – came back to ask for more photos with her. This was probably not a bad thing as it gave my husband time to get used to sitting on the elephant before it actually started moving. We admired the pink edges of her ears and her freckles and I pondered that as a freckly person myself, the shared skin characteristic might be part of why I love these beasts. Fortunately I hope that freckles are the only thing I have in common with an elephant.

With the photos finished we plodded off. Elephants are very measured in their gait – you never feel like they might suddenly ‘bolt’ or miss their footing. The walk slowly and very deliberately. This short tour walks through the spice garden at Elephant Camp along a muddy path that was seriously churned up by the rain. Lakshmi chose her steps carefully, trying to avoid getting her feet too wet. From her back we could look into the trees and see various fruits growing as well as look over the fence into the gardens of the camp’s neighbours – most of whom smiled and waved back when we smiled and waved at them. Despite this being a big local tourist attraction, we were the only westerners there that day and so seemed to get quite a bit of attention. After the first five minutes or so, our elephant handler asked for my camera and took some photographs. He explained that Lakshmi was one of his favourite elephants, that she was very dependable and not at all flighty. She knew her way round whether he was there or not. He pointed out the various plants and spices and told us about the different elephants at the camp, how they were fed, how they were looked after and how important they were to the business. I have ridden elephants that didn’t seem terribly happy about the experience but he reassured us that the elephants had a good life and were well cared for.

Elephants eat a lot – and their diet is very high in fibre. This means that even on a short walk, the rider will inevitably become educated about the bodily functions of their mount. When an elephant stops and won’t move for a few seconds, you can pretty much guarantee it’s pooping. What I’d not realised before – because this was the first time I’d sat on such a saddle where your body is separated from the beast by only a few inches of padding – was that when an elephant breaks wind its entire body vibrates. As Lakshmi let rip with long juddering gassy emanations, we got fits of giggles as the vibrations moved through her body and through our bodies on top.

Our ride was only about 30 or 40 minutes in duration and I was so comfortable I’d have stayed on for hours without needing any encouragement. I hopped off and hubby, pleased at what a brave boy he’d been, fell off the elephant and onto the platform, feeling really stupid. We popped down the steps and went round for photos and blessings from the elephant. I’m not sure what the religious value of an unconsecrated elephant blessing is, but it’s a very good way to tip the handlers – you put some money in the elephant’s trunk, she passes the money to her mahout and then bops you on the head with her trunk. You cannot watch or receive an elephant blessing without getting the giggles.

Tips handed out, elephants and riders photographed, we headed back to the car, feeling the afterglow of elephant therapy. Everybody should ride an elephant – even if only for a short time and especially if they think they are scared. I’ve never turned down the chance and I hope I never will.
Elephant Camp
Anavachal Road
Thekkady, Kerala

With Our Heads in the Clouds

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on April 8, 2012

Ramakkalmedu is a tiny village in the Idukki district of Kerala close to the border with the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. I incorrectly assumed that it was the name of the hill which I wanted to review, but then discovered on further investigation that it’s actually the area that includes the hill rather than the hill itself. Since you can see the entire area from the hill, I’m not going to fret too much over my geographical inaccuracy.
We found ourselves in the area because the tour company who arranged a few days for us in Kerala chose a hotel located at the foot of the hill, between the hill and the nearby ‘footprints of Ram’ which we didn’t have time to see. The footprints are the origin of the name Ramakkalmedu which means literally Rama’s foot prints.

Domestic visitors apparently love to visit Ramakkalmedu because of the winds that cool the area. I would imagine large parts of the UK ought to be thronging with Indian tourists because we have no shortage of the blowy stuff over here. The local wind speed is clocked at an average of 25 kmph and I can only assume it’s because the hills of Kerala hit the plane of Tamil Nadu in a sharp ridge which probably confuses the heck out of the local air patterns. It’s supposed to be a good place for paragliding too but I think I’d want to be sure someone was around to drive me back up those hills again after I landed. Evidence of how windy it is can be seen in the proliferation of wind farms in both states which can be seen from the hill. In the village where I live you’d think the world was coming to an end when someone proposed building a couple of windmills, but clearly the locals are a bit more progressive over there.

We arrived after a long day of driving and sightseeing having left the hill town of Munnar and driven to Thekkady where we rode elephants and had a swish lunch. The distance from Thekkady is about 45 km and will take over an hour. The nearest railway station is twice as far away in Changanacherry and the nearest airport in Madurai 140 km away or Kochi 190 km away. This is not a place you’d just stumble across if you weren’t determined to get there.

When we arrived in Ramakkalmedu our driver pointed to the hotel and then headed straight up the hill to the viewpoint. As it turned out this was a very wise decision on his part because we soon learned that the amazing winds were really good at blowing clouds in at high speed. If we’d dropped our bags and checked in at the hotel, perhaps thinking to head up the hill later to catch the sunset from the hilltop, all we’d have seen would have been the inside of a large, damp cloud.

It’s possible to drive most of the way up the hill without needing to get out. Your car will inevitably come out looking like it’s been in a fight with a henna monster because the soil is deep, rich red in colour and almost all Indian taxis are white. Suffice to say ours was far from white by the time it had been up and down the hill. We were dropped at the parking spot and waved towards the statue that marks the highest point of the hill, a giant rock sculpture of a man and woman. A lot of post visit ‘googling’ identified these characters as Kuruvan and Kuruthy though I failed totally to find out WHO they were supposed to be or have been.

Leaving the car we were slightly concerned by a gang of dogs hanging around on the path to the top of the hill. I’m not one who dwells on thoughts of rabies and the like but I was a little wary to keep away from them. Dogs were not the only wildlife wandering around; there were some white hairy goats who were getting less white in the red mud, a few cows and even a couple of lads on a horse who wanted to sell us a ride though we weren’t sure where to and were not tempted by the lack of a saddle or the sad look the horse greeted us with though we did laugh when the boys fell off which may have been unkind.

The area around the hill is lush and green and evidence of the wind power could be seen in the rows of windmills turning gracefully on the hillsides and on the distant plane below. There is another ridge of hills in the distance which were peeping through the wispier clouds but the space between our ridge and that distant one was occupied by a low, broad valley with fields.

We moved towards the giant statue of the couple and found a plaque which may well have been explaining who they were and why they were there but only in a local language. We took photos quickly, looking over our shoulders towards the cloud which was rolling towards us at great speed. We watched the goats eating the bushes, the boys falling off the horse and the cattle quietly ignoring everyone and everything around them.

As a viewpoint, the hill is spectacular. We’d attempted a view point on the border between the two states the day before and found ourselves inside a cloud barely able to see our hands in front of our faces. This beautiful and peaceful spot is well worth a visit if you are in the area, but I couldn’t really say it’s worth a long drive out of your way if you’re not. Luckily we made it back to the car before the entire hill was enfolded in the clouds and were happy to head down to the hotel and warm up again after a damp and cool time taking photos.
Ramakkalmedu Hill and Hamlet
Idukki District
Kerala, India

Windhaven? Not so good on rain and fog

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on January 23, 2012

Sometimes you can't help but wonder why when you find yourself in a very strange place, a long way from any attractions or much in the way of habitation. Such was our feeling when, after a long day in the car, we rolled up to the Windhaven Resort in the tiny village of Ramakal. The village has two attractions (though I use the term quite loosely) ; there’s a great big hill with a statue on top and spectacular views (if it’s not raining) and you can follow a small trail to see the footsteps of Ram (he of the Ramayana) in some rocks. Other than that, it’s hard to understand why we spent over an hour in the car to get to this place from the town of Thekkady and the same time going back the next day. Our travel agents,, mostly did a great job on putting our itinerary together but sending us to the middle of nowhere for a second rate hotel wasn’t their finest achievement.

We passed the hotel before we arrived because our driver took us up the steep hill to the viewpoint before delivering us to the hotel. This turned out to be a wise move because the clouds rolled in as we stood on top of the hill and everything disappeared as we watched. When the cloud isn’t in the way you can see for miles looking out over the border between Kerala and the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. The border is one of more than just geography – Kerala is the predominantly Christian state with a history of being run by the communist party whilst Tamil Nadu is a majority Hindu state typically appointing members of parliament who are ex-film stars. The Tamils are associated with tea picking and Kerala is covered in tea plantations. That’s a very simplistic summary but the two states are quite different.

The Windhaven is a pristine modern building painted in an attractive shade of orange. The gardens have play equipment for children but other facilities are somewhat limited. There’s apparently a tree house bedroom but we didn’t spot it. We were thrilled to find wi-fi access, and not so thrilled to find that despite having the password, we just couldn't connect. For check in I had to spend a few minutes filling in a pretty exhaustive registration form with all our passport details and visa info – despite the fact they'd already taken our passports for photocopying. We were offered a glass of cold orange drink and then taken up to our room – the ominous Room 101.

Our paperwork told us that we’d got a room that was graded 'luxury' but checking on the website, I realise that we got upgraded to the hotel’s only ‘suite’ which should cost about £8 a night more than the ‘luxury’ room. There are ‘deluxe’ (i.e. standard) rooms, ‘luxury’ rooms, the ‘suite’, the tree house and some multi-occupancy rooms with 6 or 10 beds for groups or large families. Room rates vary according to both the room type and the food ‘plan’ you want – they mysterious CP / MAP /AP scheme which never fails to baffle me. CP is ‘continental’ plan which I think is B&B. MAP is ‘modified American’ plan which I think is half board and AP is American Plan which is probably full board. The rates are very reasonable – ranging from about £25 for CP in a deluxe room up to £60 in the tree house with all meals.

We were led upstairs to our room by a porter and delivered to a room with one single bed propped against a wall, a large wardrobe and two armchairs, a small flat screen television on the wall and a full sized fridge in the corner. The floor space was massive but I wondered why we had just one small bed. My husband spotted the door in the corner of the room and headed through to reveal the proper bedroom - a standard sized double with a conventional Indian ultra-hard mattress and just one bedside table. The bedroom was a bit of a squeeze compared to the acres of spotless tiled floor in the sitting room so I did wonder if the architects had rather mis-planned the layout. The bright red bedspread was fairly garish but nothing compared to the curtains which consisted of shiny textured salmon pink drapes with a deep cerise flouncy pelmet with zillions of tassels. A door opened onto the balcony which looked out across the valley and where there was plenty of space to sit.

Talking of sitting, back in the sitting room area of our ‘suite’ we soon discovered that the distance from the arm chairs to the tiny television was sufficient to ensure that only those with hawk-like vision could actually see anything. With my short sight I was doing well to see the television set, let alone what was on it. It was all rather immaterial though since the power cuts happened so frequently that we didn’t bother with the television. I tried to charge my laptop from the socket where the fridge was and had to construct a complex support of books and bits and bobs to get it the plug to stay in the socket.

The bathroom was another inspirational mishmash of colours with a proper bath and shower, a loo and a sink unit. Several parts still had their original wrappers in place so it looked pretty funny. The hotel had clearly gone way beyond the normal call of duty with soaps, shampoo sachets and proper real toothbrushes. It was a shame they'd forgotten the towels and that everything in the bathroom was completely soaked. I assume a rain storm blowing in the wrong direction had come through the mesh window and soaked the loo and the toilet roll. I got my emergency tissue stash out of my bag and decided not to bother asking for a new loo roll.

There are no fancy facilities here. According to the website, there’s a meeting room for a few dozen people though it’s hard to imagine too many companies choosing this for their ‘off site’ needs, there should be a massage centre though we saw no evidence of it, and there’s a computer in reception which guests can use. There was a restaurant offering a ‘take it or leave it’ buffet and – given that there's nothing else for miles around – we of course took it. Dinner was due to be served at 8 pm but took an extra half hour because there were multiple power cuts to interrupt the chef’s progress. When we realised we had a bit more time to kill we went to reception to try to collect our passports and ask for some towels. The lady owner was confused and eventually said "Oh, you want extra towels?" - I explained, we didn’t want extra, we just wanted some towels because we didn’t have any.
WindHaven Resort
Thookkupalam-Cumbummettu Road
Ramakkal, Idukki, Kerala
+91 04868-221319

Lunch at the Cardamom County

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on February 26, 2012

When our driver dropped us at the Cardamom County hotel in Thekkady after we'd been elephant riding, I suffered a few pangs of accommodation envy. Whilst we'd been staying in clean and comfortable accommodation with a lot more local 'flavour' this was a reminder of what we were missing and what we could have had if I was more willing to put my hand in my pocket. It's a seriously beautiful hotel with gorgeous gardens, a fantastic swimming pool and lots of fancy facilities, including a beautiful restaurant. Such a shame that we were only there to have lunch.

All the indications suggested that this was going to be something special indeed. We arrived just after 2 pm and were the only people in the restaurant though we were not sure if we were the first or the last guests of the day. The restaurant was a large, square room open on all sides. There were no windows, just rolled down bamboo blinds. Everything was very smart in appearance and I think we both felt a bit scruffy when we walked in. Each of the tables was neatly laid with heavy linens and sparkling glass and cutlery and there were brightly coloured silk cushions on the chairs. The ceilings were painted with pictures showing lots of animals and executed with lots of detail.

The tiny slender woman who greeted us was clad in an immaculately pressed white sari and took us to a table with a corner seat. Her equally smartly dressed male colleague brought over the menus. We ordered fresh lime sodas which were brought to the table and prepared in front of us. We were given a little more time to pick something we fancied to eat, only to discover that what we wanted wasn't available. Considering we asked for the veg thali (a mix of veg dishes on a tray which is generally very standard) we were really surprised it was 'off'. The explanation given was that the tandoor wasn't on so they couldn't make naan or roti breads. We said we'd be happy with to have the thali with chappatis instead – they are made on top of the stove and not in the oven - but it was still a case of "Madame, not available today".

Tony picked an aubergine dish called moompalli ka baingan which was served with veg biryani and I opted for a kuzhi moor dhal to go with it. I was glad of the translations because the names were not ones that I would have recognised so I assume they were in the local language. We don't usually order very much at lunchtime and waiter seemed a bit disappointed with our order so we allowed ourselves to be persuaded to ordered some local Kerala bread to pad things out a bit, though I did wonder if they had that (it's like a chappati but the dough is wound in a spiral and is a bit more greasy) they could have offered it with the thali.

Once the food was ordered I headed off to check out the toilets. I have my own five point scale for Indian restaurant and attraction loos. There's a point each for a loo that flushes, one with paper, one that doesn't stink or have a flooded floor, one with soap and water and finally one with paper towels or a hand dryer. The All Spice loos were my first five pointer of the trip, narrowly edging out the four pointer from the day before that smelled divine but had not offered any kind of hand drying method. I was a bit disappointed – I was hoping for something to find fault with in this immaculate place.

The food took about 20 minutes to arrive. The aubergine dish was served in a small metal pot with a much larger mound of vegetable biryani. The dhal was a much larger dish. We divided the two dishes up between us and tucked in. The biryani was excellent with nuts and vegetables and lots of cardamoms and other spices. The aubergine dish was pretty small and there weren't many bits of aubergine to divide up. The beige coloured creamy sauce was pleasant but not particularly recognisable. The dhal was a buttery dish with black beans in a dark brown sauce. Nothing had much of a kick to it but after a few days of spicy food two or three times a day that's not always a bad thing. The quality was good, the temperature bland enough for tourists who like fancy hotels and the presentation was attractive.

Whilst we were waiting for our food an Irish man came in to get a can of Seven Up and explained that he and a party of 70 trekkers were in Kerala for a charity fund raising trek for a children's hospital in Dublin. They'd been up to the same tea plantation as us the day before and we thought we'd suffered going by Jeep. He'd fallen over several times on the walk back down and put his back out. He invited us to join them for a lot of drink that night in the hotel but we had to explain we were only there for lunch. After having only one beer since we'd arrived we'd have been cheap drunks for sure. He told us there was a spa at the hotel and he'd be having a massage later that day. We didn't dare tell him how we'd been beaten up at a massage centre the night before.

A group of three American ladies came in when our meal had nearly finished were the only other customers that lunch time and they wanted club sandwiches. It's hard to imagine a restaurant can serve 5 people and keep all the food fresh so perhaps the non-availability of some of the things we fancied was understandable. Our bill came to 611 rupees – about £8.50 – and we left a tip on top – though nothing like as generous as Mr Seven Up who'd tipped about double the cost of his can. I can imagine the staff would have a great evening with 70 generous drunk Irish walkers.
All Spice Restaurant
Cardamom County Hotel
Thekkady, India

Windhaven Resort - Part Two

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on January 23, 2012

Dinner was a small buffet of vegetable rice, vegetable curry, jeera potatoes, a chicken dish which we avoided and some 'crispy veg' which had confused us because it was classified as 'non-veg'. The penny eventually dropped that it contained egg in the batter which made it 'non veg' in the Indian definition of vegetarianism. The food was very good but the choice wasn’t very exciting. As far as we could make out there wasn’t any alcohol available though the waiter seemed overjoyed to sell us a couple of bottles of Fanta. The waiters fussed over us with vigour and plenty of enthusiasm which was sweet but rather odd.

According to the hotel’s website, "We have a very spacious and luxurious restaurant where we serve all kinds of food as per your choice (Indian, Chinese, English, continental & American). We have a chef dedicated for English food and we serve full English break-fast round the clock." Our experience suggests that they failed on just about every promise in those two sentences. There was no choice (other than ‘eat it or don’t’), the food in the buffet was all Indian and if there was an English food chef, he wasn’t there. They also say that their restaurant offers views of the mountain but again, you’ll only get the benefit if you go in summer since the mountain is invisible after dark and in the rain. I have to suspect that November wasn’t a time when they were providing full service. The hotel was probably busy for Diwali and Christmas but most of the business would be in the summer months.

You cannot fail to spot that the hotel has lots of inspirational phrases framed and hung on the wall. Over dinner we were suitably inspired by the thought that "Winners don't do different things but they do things differently" and our room carried the words "When you are good to others, you are best to yourself" - wise indeed and well worth remembering. Tony went out with the camera to photograph his favourites which seemed to please the lady downstairs – I hope she never realised he wanted to taunt a few colleagues with them when he got back to work. During his photo taking he met a gentleman and his son on the stairs and got into a long conversation. The man couldn’t believe that foreign tourists had rolled up in such an out of the way place and interrogated him about why we were there, where we’d been, pretty much our entire life histories.

Eventually after dinner and after the second time of asking, a chap appeared with towels and proceeded to spend several minutes doing origami with them on the bottom of the bed so it was clearly worth the wait. Our views were excellent – when it stopped raining – and once all the kids had gone to bed it was pretty quiet in the hotel with no noise from outside except for crickets and other chirpy things.

Breakfast starts at 7.30 but when we went down it wasn't really ready and the guys said it didn't start until 8.30 but they could do toast and hot drinks for us and then they added eggs to our options. Since that's all we wanted anyway it wasn't any big deal that the breakfast buffet wasn't available. An Indian family weren't quite so impressed when they turned up a bit later and had quite a major row with the receptionist when they were due to leave. This hotel clearly can’t deal very well with running things to the client’s timescale rather than their own. They were lucky with us – we had nowhere to go and we weren’t in a rush so it made little difference what time they fed us, but I can imagine for anyone with time constraints it would be horribly frustrating. Our shower had only cold water but I’m not sure why and we didn’t interrogate them. I suspect that it might have been due to the use of solar panels to heat the water since the previous day had been wet or overcast for much of the time so maybe they just didn’t get enough heat.

Checkout caused no problems and the bill was 590 rupees (about £8) for dinner and drinks the night before. I tried to access email on the reception computer but had to give up because it was blocking google which seemed like a pretty extreme thing to do. We went outside when the unhappy Indian family had a bit of a fight about the bill because we didn’t want the owner to be embarrassed about us witnessing it but when they were done we headed back inside. Our driver had gone missing and returned to the hotel in a really stinking temper. He was furious that there were no driver 'facilities' available and that he'd not been able to get breakfast. He was late to pick us up because he had to go off and find somewhere to wash in the village and had waited an hour for a bathroom to use.

Keeping in mind that you really can’t stay at the Windhaven without transport, they really will need to fix the problem with driver facilities. Shijo was in a foul mood all day after the hotel’s lack of facilities meant he was late to get us and I guess he probably had to sleep in the car which can’t have been much fun. Since his employers booked the place he asked us to please complain about the hotel when we sent our feedback forms.

My recommendation would be to not stay here unless you have a pressing need to be in Ramakal as the location is very isolated. It’s probably better to go in the summer and I can imagine that if you live in a noisy, hot Indian city, this place might seem like paradise. For us it was a nice enough building, everything was absolutely spotless and our room was fine. The staff tried their best but there’s not too much they can do about the power problems or the weather. Check before booking whether the restaurant will be fully open and whether they can accommodate your driver. Otherwise – and then only if you want to be miles from anywhere – stay in Thekkady, 40 km away where there’s lots to do.
WindHaven Resort
Thookkupalam-Cumbummettu Road
Ramakkal, Idukki, Kerala
+91 04868-221319

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