Independent traveler

Love to travel, but hate tours? This blog offers insight on how to go it alone, from safe accommodations to seeing the best, and maybe the worst. After all, independent travel is an adventure. Flexibility and traveling on a budget are critical. No five-stars or all-inclusives. So hop aboard. Learn to enjoy travel at your own pace and price. Meet other adventurers like yourself and mingle with the locals. Remember: You may travel alone, but you wonʼt be lonely. gloria.independenttraveler@gmail.com

The “Land of Enchantment”, New Mexico, Pecos National Historical Park. - 9/22/2012 4:27 pm

All border crossings are not created equal... - 8/19/2012 7:58 am

Avoid Interstates, enjoy travel through middle America... - 8/12/2012 6:12 am

Right now is the best time to travel the Alaska Highway. - 8/4/2012 5:45 pm

Fifty Shades of Grey becoming a travel phenomenon. - 7/29/2012 6:46 am

Winners of the annual Independent Traveler Photo Contest... - 7/21/2012 10:00 pm

Independent Traveler photo contest, submit your favorite travel photo here... - 7/1/2012 10:38 am

How to get a good seat on your next flight. - 6/24/2012 9:26 am

Here's one reader's favorite travel sites....

I got these great suggestions from reader, "Inhbowlus".

"AirFareWatchdog.com is awesome. It tracks all airlines, advertized and unadvertised, and I have found better sales there than through any online travel agency or even AK Airlines.”
I checked it out and loved it. Now on my favorites.

“Another I use is SniqueAway.com".
Here’s what I found:
Inviting website and fantastic photos and prices for hotels and condos, at least the ones I looked at. Definitely now on my list of travel bookmarks.

“And last but not least Groupon.com and use the getaways tab.”
Killer deals if you’re flexible. Makes me want to hop on the next flight to the getaway.

Thanks for your suggestions “Inhbowlus”, Gloria!

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Is this guy for real?

A flight attendant friend sent me this:

"This morning, we noticed we had an empty first class seat after closing the boarding door. After further review, a name had been assigned to that seat and our count reflected a full first class. We asked the man in the seat next, if he knew the person.
His reply: "That's my wife. She's always late. Just leave her. Let's go."
Us: "Umm...sir, you do realize this flight is traveling over 3,000 miles, right?"
Hi: "Yes, I know." Soooo, we left....had to, not that he cared. Glad I'm not married to that guy."

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Five travel websites you should bookmark.

Below are five of my favorite travel websites.

1. Hotwire.com
I use this website a lot. I’ve found that booking cars through Hotwire saves me a lot. I usually book the lowest rate for the smallest vehicle. Many, many times when I pick up the vehicle the company upgrades it to a larger car for free. I use Hotwire for booking both domestic and international rentals.
2. VRBO.com
I love this website, Vacation Rentals by Owners. I’ve booked all over the world and haven’t been disappointed yet. Rates are less than comparable hotels. You get more room and also have a kitchen and can save on food.
3. FlightView.com
This is a great site for real time tracking of flights in North America and Canada. Plus it provides information on delays, weather and parking. There is a free downloadable app for your smart phone.
4. AlaskaAir.com
Because there are a limited number of air carriers that service Alaska, I love getting deals on Alaska Airlines the carrier I fly most. Sign up for their Alaska Visa Signature Card and get even more. Upon approval you will get 25,000 miles that translates to a free round trip ticket. Also each year you get a $99 companion fare when you buy a ticket. Translated, right now Alaska is offering one way fares to Hawaii for $179 and you can use a companion fare for only $99. Plus you gets miles on every flight that can be used for positive space seats on Alaska or one its partner airlines.
5. OneBag.com
If you are like I am, I always pack too much and am always looking for ways to cut back. This is a great site for space saving ideas. It offers printable packing lists, advice on the type of bag you should use and much, much more. Check it out.

What is your favorite site? Leave me a comment below or e-mail me.

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Got a cold, but have to fly? Follow these tips.

Been there, done that! Ear pain from flying with a stuffy nose either from allergies or a cold. Blocked ears for days after a flight. I don't ever want it to happen again.

In the past, I've tried plugging my nose and blowing to pop my ears during landing. (Don't do it on takeoff.) Didn't work. I've landed holding cups over my ears that had a small amount of hot water in the bottom to create steam. Didn't work. I've chewed wads of gum. Still didn't work.

Here's what I've found that does work.

1. Afrin nasal spray 20 mins. before takeoff. It is the best thing I have found for keeping one's Eustachian tubes clear which in turn keeps your ears from blocking. Given it's strength, it covers you for both takeoff and landing.

Here are a few other suggestions.

1. Take a decongestant once you feel stuffy.
2. If you have allergies, take an allergy tablet before you fly.
3. Drink lots of water to flush out your bug.
4. Take onboard lots of tissue if you are dripping, sneezing or coughing. Your seatmates will really appreciate it.
5. Plus, don't fly with a fever. You are sick. Stay at home least risk seeing a doctor on landing.

Any suggestions? Comment below or send me an e-mail.

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Please pause for a moment of silence for the Carlsons and Captain Earp.

This gloomy weather doesn't help to deter the overwhelming sadness I feel for the Carlson family and their loved ones left behind. This tragedy is unthinkable. I can't even begin to imagine the pain Captain Earp must be suffering either.

The only little thing that I can do is ask everyone who reads this to take a moment of silence to remember the Carlsons, to pray for their loved ones and for Captain Earp.

Thank you, Gloria

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Visitors arriving? Check out this website to track their flight and more.

I just ran across a great website, FlightView. With different sets of visitors arriving and departing for the last few weeks, this website has been a lifesaver.

At FlightView you can see real time tracking with estimated time of arrival for any flight traveling within North America. Once you put in a flight number, you can find out departure and arrival terminals along with specific gate information.

FlightView has links to local weather for departure and destination locales. Of great help is flight delay information along with parking information and limo services.

I haven't spent a lot of time at this site, but it is definitely a site worth checking out. It's free and you can download an app for your mobile.

Founded in 1981 and making products for commercial use, this company really has it all together.

What a find.

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In celebration of three years in the blogosphere, please join me for a trip down memory lane...

First of all I wish to thank you for your support and encouraging comments either written or verbal. I mentioned in my promo, that appears on this Sunday’s travel page in AND’s print edition, I hope you might go to the archives and read some blogs you might have missed.

However, given that getting to and navigating the archives is cumbersome, I'm providing a few direct links to my favorite travel destinations. Just click on the names in bold to get you there. Or you can scroll to the bottom of the page and click on a page number to bring up older posts.

If you are interested in reading about Panama’s San Blas Islands, click here. For travel from Mexico City to Monument Valley, click here. If you didn’t get to go bear watching in Katmai National Park this summer do it vicariously right here.

If you like Southeast Asia and yearn to know about Singapore or its neighboring islands in Indonesia such as Bali, click here. Want more information on Machu Picchu in Peru, click here. Dream of taking a leisurely canal boat through the English countryside, join me here.

And if it’s Stonehenge or a visit to the Greek Islands, scroll down this page.

Hope you enjoy my journey down memory lane…Gloria

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Did you lock your suitcase Laura Ingraham?

So Laura Ingraham had jewelry stolen out of her checked luggage.

She thinks either the TSA took it or a Continental Airline's employee. While I don't trust the TSA, they have apparently left a note in my suitcase every time they have opened it. There was no note in Laura's suitcase.

The looming question, however, is was the suitcase locked. It should have been. If one suitcase is locked and another is not, which one do you think the thief is going to target?

To repeat (because I've done several blogs on to lock or not lock), the TSA doesn't prevent you from locking your suitcase, they only encourage you not to for their convenience should they chose to open it.

They also encourage people to use TSA locks which have special keys that they can use to unlock it. However, if you chose to use an non-TSA lock you can still lock your suitcase. In that case, the TSA will cut off the lock and hopefully secure it with a plastic strip.

Here's what the TSA website has to say on locking your luggage:
"To lock...or not. In some cases screeners will have to open your baggage as part of the screening process. If your bag is unlocked TSA will simply open and screen the contents. However, if you decide to lock your checked bag and TSA cannot open it through other means, then the locks may have to be broken. TSA is not liable for damage caused to locked bags that must be opened for security purposes.

TSA suggests that you help prevent the need to break your locks by using a TSA-recognized locking mechanism. These "special" locks can be opened by TSA using tools provided to us by participating industry members and can be purchased at multiple retail outlets."

Pilfering through suitcases has always been a problem even before the TSA came onboard. It is ignorant not to lock a suitcase that you leave of all things valuable jewelry in.

Thank you Laura Ingraham for bringing this to our attention.

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Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon, a rock climber’s dream with miles of trails to entice hikers…

Smith Rock State Park outside of Redmond Oregon is a rock climber's dream.Smith Rock State Park outside of Redmond Oregon is a rock climber's dream.

Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon near Redmond and Bend, lures rock climber’s from all over the world. It even claims to be the birthplace of sport climbing. Rock formations of basalt and tuff make it ideal.

While I’m not a rock climber, I enjoy watching others maneuver sheer cliffs sans ropes. It's a sport for all ages evidenced by a family of five with children aging from seven to 11 who were gearing up for lessons.
Even if you're not a rock climber a trail will take you to the top.Even if you're not a rock climber a trail will take you to the top.

If rock climbing is not your gig, but hiking is, trails abound offering fantastic vistas of deep canyons and the Crooked River.
A trail along Crooked River winds around to the top.A trail along Crooked River winds around to the top.

A dramatic backdrop for movies, some fairly recent and old westerns, Smith Rock State Park is indeed worth a visit. I will definitely go back for longer than a day.

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Is Lava Lands outside of Bend, OR worth a visit?

Fire lookout station atop Lava Butte as seen from a hike around the crater.Fire lookout station atop Lava Butte as seen from a hike around the crater.

You betcha’! It is a real treat to visit this very, very different area. Almost like stepping back in time 7,000 years ago without the heat.

Hikes at Lava Lands Visitors' Center trailhead.Hikes at Lava Lands Visitors' Center trailhead.
Lava Lands is part of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument located in Central Oregon a few miles outside on Bend on Highway 97. It’s an easy off and you can drive up to the crater atop of Lava Butte. From there you take a hike around the crater and view miles upon miles of dramatic vistas.

Volcanic rock covers the landscape for miles around Lava Lands as seen here from Lava Butte.Volcanic rock covers the landscape for miles around Lava Lands as seen here from Lava Butte.

Literally, tons of volcanic rock litter the hillside and the Cascade Range provide a dramatic backdrop.

A short distance south on Highway 97 from Lava Lands is the Newberry Visitors’ Center where you can take a drive to Paulina Lake that rests in a crater. It was built a mere 550,000 years ago during volcanic eruptions. Today Paulina’s inflow is from snow melt, upwelling hot springs and seepage from nearby East Lake, also a crater Lake.

Amazing to gaze upon this extinct (I hope) crater atop of Lava Butte.Amazing to gaze upon this extinct (I hope) crater atop of Lava Butte.

A trip to Lava Lands and the scenic drive to Paulina Lake can be done easily in a half day, unless you want to hike many of the trails. I didn’t given the residual snow in late June. Best to visit no earlier than July when the visitor centers are open with visitor amenities.

Stunningly beautiful Paulina Lake formed by a crater in Newberry National Volcanic Monument.Stunningly beautiful Paulina Lake formed by a crater in Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

Next stop Smith Rock State Park known for great rock climbing, trails and its deep river canyons.

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One airline captain's request for his special passenger this 4th of July weekend...

An airline captain writes: The lead flight attendant came to me and said, "We have an H.R. on this flight." (H.R. stands for human remains)

"Are they military?" I asked.

"Yes.”

"Is there an escort?"

“Yes.”

"Would you please ask him to come to the flight deck,” I requested

A short while later, a young army sergeant appeared. He was a perfectly dressed soldier and introduced himself. I asked about his soldier. (Escorts of fallen soldiers talk about them as if they are alive and still with us.)

"My soldier is on his way back to Virginia," he said.

I told him that he had the toughest job in the military. I expressed my appreciation for the work he does for the families of our fallen soldiers. The first officer and I got up and shook his hand.

About 30 minutes into the flight the lead flight attendant told me. "I just found out the family of the soldier we are carrying, is on board with his father, mother, wife and 2-year old daughter.” She went on to say that the family was upset because they were unable to see the container that the soldier was in before we left.

The father of the soldier said knowing his son was below him in the cargo compartment and not being able to see him was too much for the family to bear. He asked the flight attendant if it was possible that after our arrival they could see their son when he was transferred to their connecting flight.

The family would have a four-hour wait before their flight home to Virginia. I contacted the ground flight dispatcher and explained the family’s request. Two hours later he responded.

"Captain, sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. Upon your arrival an escort team will meet your aircraft. The team will escort the family planeside. A van will be used to load the remains with a secondary van for the family. The family will then be taken to a private area within the terminal where they can view their son’s remains. When the connecting aircraft arrives, the family will be escorted to see their son loaded for the final leg home. Captain, most of us here in flight control are veterans. Please pass on our condolences to the family."

I printed out the message and gave it to the flight attendant.

"You have no idea how much this will mean to them," she replied

After landing, we were told that all other air traffic was being held for us.

I then made the following announcement:
"Ladies and gentleman, this is your Captain speaking we have stopped short of our gate since we have a special passenger on board who deserves our honor and respect. He is a soldier who recently lost his life and is traveling under your feet in the cargo bay. Escorting him today is an army sergeant and his father, mother, wife and daughter. Your flight crew is asking for all of you to remain seated and to allow the family to exit the aircraft first. Thank you."

After we stopped at the gate, I opened the cockpit door and found the two forward flight attendants crying. They told me that when the family got up and gathered their things, the passengers started clapping. As the family exited the plane, passengers commented “God bless you…I'm sorry…thank you…be proud", and other kind words of condolence.

As the passengers exited, they also thanked me for letting them know. I told them that nothing I could say could bring that brave soldier back.

I respectfully ask that all of you on this 4th of July holiday reflect on this event and the sacrifices that millions of our men and women make to ensure our freedom and safety in these United States of America.

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TSA force 95 year-old to remove her Depends...

I can't even begin to express my anger over the recent activities of TSA agents in Miami that traumatized a 95 year old cancer patient on her way home for her final days.

This past February I encountered TSA Miami's absolute rudeness and disregard for the public. This recent event doesn't surprise me, but it saddens me greatly.

When is the traveling public going to standup to the TSA and the government by letting them know “enough is enough”. How can we be so apathetic? The TSA is ineffective and invasive of our civil rights. It's time to revamp the organization and fire the power mongers that work within it.

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Central Oregon, Alaska without grandeur, is still spectacular…

After living in Alaska for 30 years, I’m a little biased regarding what I call mountains and wilderness. That being said, my recent visit to Central Oregon, basing myself out of Bend, was still fun. Just smaller in proportion to Alaska and more densely populated.
Mount Bachelor as seen from the south.Mount Bachelor as seen from the south.

Central Oregon’s landscape is punctuated by volcanic mountains that jut straight up out of the Cascade Range. Broken Top and Three Sisters, three volcanic mountains, can be seen from Bend and nearby areas on a clean day.
Volcanic debris line the Cascade Lakes Highway in many places.Volcanic debris line the Cascade Lakes Highway in many places.

My outing to Mount Bachelor along the Cascade Lakes Highway, a loop around several alpine lakes, was spectacular. I especially enjoyed the volcanic rock that lies in many areas.
Deer are common along the road.Deer are common along the road.

A side trip to Wickiup Reservoir netted a spectacular view of the Deschutes River near its source. Surprisingly there were scant anglers trying their luck.
My husband the consummate fisher was salivating along this stretch of the Deschutes River.My husband the consummate fisher was salivating along this stretch of the Deschutes River.

Next stop, Lava Lands.

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Is it dangerous for my child to go through a TSA full body scanner?

Yes indeed it may be. Due to the machines depositing radiation into the skin, children may be at risk for higher doses. Don't wait for the evidence to be conclusive "opt out" your child today.

Here's the latest:

1. "The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest Xrays have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of the whole body volume dose. In contrast, these new airport scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high." Quoted from Pro Publica.

2. "Moreover, there are a number of ‘red flags’ related to the hardware itself. Because this device can scan a human in a few seconds, the X-ray beam is very intense. Any glitch in power at any point in the hardware (or more importantly in software) that stops the device could cause an intense radiation dose to a single spot on the skin. Who will oversee problems with overall dose after repair or software problems? The TSA is already complaining about resolution limitations; who will keep the manufacturers and/or TSA from just raising the dose, an easy way to improve signal-to-noise and get higher resolution? Lastly, given the recent incident (on December 25th), how do we know whether the manufacturer or TSA, seeking higher resolution, will scan the groin area more slowly leading to a much higher total dose?" Quoted from FireDogLake.com

We should all be concerned about what the TSA is doing and not doing. Check out these links for more information: Latest conclusions, Are the scanners safe?

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This summer visit Anchorage even if you live here.

While I was thinking what to blog about on my way home from an early Memorial Day picnic, the subject sauntered right in front of the truck. A Lynx!

It came out of the woods and walked across our neighborhood street as if it belonged here. It probably does, but the site of this magnificent creature made me once again realize how lucky I am to live in this last frontier city.

Where else in the world can I see moose in my front yard, a black bear amble across a nearby road, an eagle perch atop a tall spruce tree from my front window and ponds awash with tons of migratory birds?

It is easy to get caught up in “life” and miss all that Alaska has to offer by simply stepping out the front door. Therefore, I devote this blog as a reminder of the fact that all of us in Alaska and in Anchorage live in a truly magnificent place.

Maybe this summer will be my Staycation. Even after 30 years, I really can’t get enough of this place.

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How do I get a Bereavement Airfare?

My husband’s mother recently died and we had to make an emergency trip to a small town in Oregon. Fortunately, we have a family member who works for Alaska Airlines and were able to take advantage of standing by for flights, however in the past I wasn’t so lucky.

I was in England when my father passed and worked with both Virgin Airlines and United to fly back to Nebraska. That was in 1997. Things have changed dramatically since that time so I wanted to let you know how the Bereavement Airfare process works today.

First of all, the airlines aren’t as generous as they once were. Since many of us use Alaska Airlines as our first carrier, I checked their policy.

Jenn (Alaska’s automated online agent) says: Alaska Airlines offers a bereavement discount to customers who are traveling last minute due to the death of an immediate family member. This discount is only available within 7 days of travel and must be booked in advance. For further assistance, please contact Alaska’s Airlines Reservations.

Since many bereavement rates aren’t really a good deal you may be better booking through the Internet providers such as Kayak, Expedia, Orbitz or CheapoAir for low fares.

One of the main advantages of using bereavement fares is flexibility. You can generally get a full refund on your ticket if it is not needed. You can change dates without incurring a fee.

Usually during a time of bereavement it is best to have a friend or family member help you check this all out. If you're like I was, I wasn't thinking too clearly.

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Is HotWire.com a good deal for hotels?

I really like HotWire.com for booking cars, but I had never used the site for booking a hotel until my recent trip to Santa Fe. The discount prices at HotWire.com are a great deal. The downside is that you don’t get to choose a specific hotel. Hotels are booked according to ratings categories, for instance, four star, three star, etc.

I booked in the two and a half star category, because I wanted to save as much as possible on my four-night stay. After booking and paying in full HotWire tells you the name. When I discovered I had booked the Santa Fe Suites, I went to TripAdvisor.com for comments from people who had stayed there. I also checked out their website.

The comments on TripAdvisor were mixed and I got a lump in the bottom of my tummy. I’m very picky about where I stay as far as the location of the room, comfort of the bed, cleanliness, noise etc. I did read, however, that it was the hotel’s goal to become #1 on TripAdvisor which I felt was a good sign.

I called the hotel directly to request that I get a room in the new section, that WIFI be available in the room and that the room be in the quietest section. The receptionist said that because I booked on HotWire.com they couldn’t guarantee that I would get my requests as my room would be based on the available rooms on the day of my arrival. It was spring break. However, Venus (the best receptionist in the world) said she would do her best to help me get my desired room. And she did!

I was incredibly impressed with the Santa Fe Suites and their professional service despite the chance I took booking on HotWire at a greatly discounted rate. I hope they make it to #1 on TripAdvisor.

Would I use HotWire.com again? I’m not sure as I might not be as lucky next time at a different hotel. I could get a room next door to the elevators or ice machine or noisy street or be put above the bar, etc.

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Five travel scams you should know about.

1. Avoid lost jewelry and medications. Carry all medications and jewelry with you in your carry-on baggage. Your checked luggage could be lost, stolen or delayed.

2. Lock your suitcase. You can get TSA approved locks for your luggage. It is a myth that you are not allowed to lock your luggage. Leaving your suitcase unlocked may temp some unscrupulous ground person to investigate the contents.

3. Don't leave valuable things lying around in your hotel room. Lock them in your suitcase. My husband recently lost his watch and I lost my travel alarm at an expensive hotel in Panama.

4. Don't have your hotel arrange taxis unless you are willing to pay double to three times the cost for flagging one down yourself. This practice is rife in Mexico, Latin America, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and basically every place I have ever traveled.

5. Carefully check your bill at restaurants. You will find that as many as nine out of ten times an extra drink or extra food item has been added on. This practice is especially rife if you pay as a group. And always check to see if the gratuity has been added to avoid double tipping.

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Do I really need to turn off my electronic device during takeoff and landing?

I just returned after flying several different legs over the last few weeks. On three of my flights, passengers blatantly used their electronic devices after the flight attendants asked them to be turned off.

On my flight to Anchorage, we were rolling down the runway on takeoff and a fellow in front of me one seat over was watching something on his mobile. I poked him on the shoulder and told him to turn it off. He looked at me dumbfounded and continued to use his cell phone. I tapped him again and yelled at him to turn it off "NOW".

On another flight a woman took out her cell and began dialing after the captain announced we would land in an hour. I informed her she couldn't make calls during the flight. She responded, "well they charge $10 for the internet and that's just too much to send an e-mail." I told her that computers and cells use different types of signals.

What are these people thinking? Just because there hasn't been a crash related to electronic devices left on or someone using their cell phone inflight, doesn't mean that it can't happen. It’s as if someone thinks they're safe driving through red lights because they never get hit.

So why can't we use electronic devices anytime on planes. I searched the web and found that the Boeing website sums it up best. They give specifics of how electronic devices interfere with aviation navigation and airplane equipment. The FCC gives you the rules and others give you opinions.

My take on the whole thing is if it's even remotely possible that electronic devices or cell phones pose danger, why take a chance? I really don't want to be on the plane that goes down due to some selfish yahoo's total disregard for rules and regulations created for our protection.

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