Lonely places, lyrical prose

The Guest Post Series onMy Favourite Thingshas contributions by those sharing my interests in travel, books, photography, music, and on issues that I am passionate about. Though the guest posts are not always by fellow bloggers, the guest authors are always those who have interesting experiences to share.

Today’s guest author is Zephyr of The Cyber Nag, who writes about “social issues, family and kids” with dollops of humour, gentle sarcasm, and subtle nagging for our conscience without sounding patronising or condescending. In my opinion, her writing can only be classified in one category, “Excellent”. In today’s post, Zephyr moves away from the topics that she usually writes on and talks about Pico Iyer’s Falling of the Map and how, in spite of not being a fan of this genre, slowly fell in love with this book.

I heard about Pico Iyer and his highly acclaimed Video nights in Kathmandu, about a quarter century ago. But somehow, the title didn’t appeal to me. Don’t ask me why. And so Iyer remained a quaint name in the far recesses of my mind for some years.

Falling off the mapThen came his Falling off the map ( first published in the US by Alfred Knopf in 1993). This one sounded intriguing. My fertile imagination made me visuaIise the countries mentioned in the book jostling for space to stay on the map, but kept being pushed out by the other and better known countries. Sometimes these countries fought with the lonely ones, making them sadder and lonelier! But the book remained right there – in my imagination because back then I couldn’t afford to buy new books and most of my purchases were restricted to second-hand bookshops. Alas, for Falling… to come to that sales outlet, I would have to wait a long, long while.

Besides, travel books as a genre, did not hold much appeal for me. I liked James Michener’s Hawaii, but it was more a historical novel than a travel book. Till one day I picked up a small volume of Lost Continent by Bill Bryson. It was such a delightful read and made me laugh so much that I got hooked – not to travel books, but to Bryson. And Pico Iyer remained a distant name, just like the countries he had written about in that book.

It took a session of #TSBC on travel books to remind me of that long forgotten name and his book and I promptly bought Falling off the Map (2004, Penguin Books India, pp.190, Price: 250/-) from Flipkart.

It was well worth the wait – of nearly 20 years. I had read some reviews about the book that complained about it being too dated since the situation in many of the countries he has talked about has changed drastically in the interim. But I think that it only gives a historical perspective to the book.

I found the reasoning behind his bunching the countries together as being lonely quite logical, though they seem most disparate at first glance. For instance, how can one talk of a developed Australia and a closed and communist North Korea, a war-torn Vietnam and the cloistered Himalayan state of Bhutan, in the same breath? Why Argentina is mentioned along with Iceland, though worlds and oceans apart? He has devoted the first chapter to explain why these countries are Lonely Places admitting that he is the only one, perhaps to have bunched them together. I am quoting randomly from this chapter:

Lonely Places are the places that don’t fit in;…

…..are the exceptions that prove every rule; they are ascetics, castaways, and secessionists; prisoners, anchorites and solipsists.

More than in space, then, it is in time that Lonely Places are often exiled…

….Some are born to isolation, some have isolation thrust upon them. Each makes its own accommodation with wistfulness and eccentricity and simple institutionalized standoffishness.

That said, he goes on to describe the places he has grouped together, and then meanders through the countries to unravel their isolation. The headings of the chapters say it all: “My holiday with Kim Il Sung” (North Korea); “La Dolce Vita meets ‘The Hyper’ ” (Argentina); “An elegiac carnival” (Cuba); “Hidden inside the hidden kingdom” (Bhutan); “Yesterday once more” (Vietnam); “Up for sale or adoption” (Paraguay); “Five thousand miles from anywhere” (Australia).

For me, this book is less a travel book than a sociological study of the times of these Lonely Places. And Iyer, with his eye for the absurd and the unusual, provides interesting trivia, and with his knack for picking up the subtle nuances of the place and its people, enthralls with his prose. I love the uncanny and effortless way in which he looks beneath the surface to find the quirks that distinguish the place. So much so that, he gets ‘into the rhythm of the place’, after a few days of absorbing the oddities, and actually looks forward to visiting the place again. I would go as far as to say that it is a literary work unlike other travel books.

For instance, his depiction of life in North Korea is surreal. Pyongyang with its empty streets and the monstrous concrete edifices, the people living under the illusion of the superiority of their country and their leader Kim Il Sung, brings North Korea alive in the reader’s eye.

Among the countries he has talked about, I liked Paraguay the most, perhaps due to its uncanny resemblance to present day India. Iyer mentions a tour of ‘The Houses that Corruption Built’ — which he incidentally didn’t take — while quoting the secretary of the then new president, who declared, “If you brought the Queen of England to Paraguay, she would run contraband too.”

A land of dichotomies, where many world languages are spoken including Korean; where a lucrative baby adoption business thrives; where ‘everything is illegal.’ A corrupt place then, with an economically unequal society where extreme poverty and extreme affluence co-exist. A succession of presidents whose penchant for naming everything after themselves while erecting monuments and statues for themselves and who took huge cuts from, and often owned the franchises of foreign corporations — who set up shop there — remind us uncomfortably of our own highly corrupt politicians and their ways. The sad part however is that, while Paraguay has moved ahead, India is still stuck in that space.

Though Iyer celebrates the loneliness of these places, he uses droll humour, a tinge of affection and a lot of indulgence, when he could easily have become condescending in his tone. While recording the unpredictable modes of travel in Bhutan, he does not show his annoyance but only an amused tolerance; while talking about the extreme poverty and shortages in Cuba, he is able to appreciate the warmth of the people and their joie de vivre (“…whose warmth has only been intensified by adversity”); when he talks of the scooters zooming around Saigon in the night, he is able to do it with a sense of admiration and awe at the spirit of the people of the war ravaged country, which is like a “…pretty girl with her face pressed up against the window of the dance hall, waiting to be invited in.”

An inveterate traveler, Iyer has been travelling since he completed school, when he worked at a Mexican restaurant to save up enough money to travel for three months in South America, the Suriname and the West Indies. When he joined graduate school, he undertook a tour of 80 towns in 90 days for the guide-book series, Let’s Go. According to him, the difference between a tourist and a traveler is that the latter leaves his assumptions at home and the former complains that nothing is like home!

As travel books go, this one might not add to the tourist traffic to these countries. But the curiosity is definitely aroused. While some countries have tried climbing on to the map and are  sitting there, there are some that still glory in their isolation and quirkiness, like Iceland and Bhutan.

Having said all that in praise of the book, I found the use of other languages, which pepper each chapter, quite annoying. Whether French, Italian or Spanish, a glossary would have served well. But perhaps it is meant for a multi-lingual readership?

But this minor peeve wouldn’t stop me from picking it up once again to savour the lyrical narrative and maybe even look up those words in other languages.  And with that statement, I just officially dislodged Bryson from the top of my list of favourite travel writers!


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94 thoughts on “Lonely places, lyrical prose

  1. I, too, have not been too fond of travel-writing. For one, most travel-writers tend to adopt the attitude of someone who has been anointed as the judge of the social mores and values of the countries they visit. I tend to read travel writers when I am bereft of any other option. I do think that I have read Pico Iyer a couple of times – my impression is one of good humorous writing but it did not leave me confident about having a hang of the countries he described.

    As an aside, great to hear of someone else who has read James A Michener!

    • The best thing I liked about him was that he was recording the things he saw and was not either patronising or judgmental. In fact, he has even been accused of being more of a journalist than a travel writer because journalists are supposed to only report and not express views as our present day crop of journalists are doing :) And yes, he has a great sense of humour.

      I have read only Hawaii by Michener and loved it. The next book of his I want to read would be Poland. Have you read that?

      • I have read quite a lot of Michener and, yes, Poland is one of them. I probably have that book somewhere in my collection – unless it got lost in one of my various house-shiftings.

  2. Thank you Sudha for featuring my review here. It is for me like being featured in the Hall of Fame of good book reviews :) And I can take heart from the fact that I too can do reviews of books other than The Outsiders :P

    • Actually, I’m the one who should be thanking you for agreeing to post the review here. I couldn’t believe my ears when you said yes ! :-D And you made me blush with the comment on “Hall of Fame of good book reviews”

  3. It just occurred to me that maybe our MP’s can go on an official junket to Paraguay, and stay there. North Korea would be next .With so many sons rising , they would feel so much at home. Hopefully they will all stay there……

    Zephyr, thanks for this wonderful review ! Will certainly look out for this book. I remember reading Pico Iyer’s name on the Time masthead ages ago.

    • That is a priceless suggestion, Suranga! They will fit in perfectly in Paraguay and N.Korea. It never occurred to me to link our own sons’ rising with the latter country. Thanks for pointing it out :D

      He has the reporter’s eye for details and a writer’s felicity with words — a perfect combo. You will enjoy this one.

  4. Pingback: Travelling to Lonely Places with Pico Iyer | Cyber Nag

  5. I haven’t read travel writing at all. Somehow, it does not engage me. And, I haven’t read Pico Iyer either :). Though I love to read about new places and experience them. It must be in the context of a larger story.

    • Sometimes reading about places as standalone writing is also good, as this one is and as the other books by Bill Bryson that I have read. It all depends on how you are able to relate to the writer in order to take his or her word about a place.

  6. I haven’t read much of travel books.Your review tempts me to read this though the. countries listed do not fascinate me.More than the content,I like the way you write
    in an admirable manner.

  7. I am a passionate lover of travel and travel writing. :) That said, I haven’t read any Pico Iyer or Bill Bryson yet. I better pick up their books ASAP. :)

    Lovely review, Zephyr. Sounds like a fascinating book.

    I particularly loved the quote about tourists and travellers. So true!

    • I am sure you will love this one, TGND. He has written so many books and now I have to begin reading them all. Maybe even Video nights…despite its title :D

      I found so many quote-worthy stuff in the book that I might have ended up infringing on copyright and also in danger of being chased out by Sudha for the length of the post :P

  8. I haven’t read any book of this genre. Never interested me.
    I am always skeptical of book reviews because sometimes the review is so fancy that I am not able to handle it. No, I don’t blame the writer, the problem is me with my limited intelligence. But this review is so nice and makes me want to read the book right now.
    Zephyr you were afraid unnecessarily, the review is ….like all your other works A+ :D

    • Hey thanks for the confidence in my writing abilities. You know why I am afraid to book reviews? Because of the same reason as you — they are too fancy and often done with an ulterior motive unless one is highly professional like my host :) I am glad that this review didn’t put you off. Do read it if you can pick it up.

  9. I definitely don’t usually read travel books but I do love history and your review of this book makes it intriguing! Hopefully, I can snag a secondhand copy from Amazon, because, like you, my purchases are usually of that type! :))

    • Travel books are enjoyable only when the writing is good. Who wants to only know which places to visit? A personal perspective that doesn’t cloud the objectivity is very important while doing travel writing and this is in abundance in Pico Iyer and Bryson’s works. I myself am new to Iyer’s style but now, I am going to be reading more of his works.

    • A warm welcome here, Meena, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. And very happy that you liked the posts mentioned. I see that you have liked the #TSBC FB page and hope that you will be able to join our sessions on twitter as well :-)

  10. Wow! The review is so nicely written. I so agree with @sudhagee – your writings can be put in only one category “Excellent”. The next book on my list is Bill Bryson’s ‘At Home’ but now I am wondering if I should pick this one first.

    I loved Pico Iyer’s idea of difference between a tourist and a traveler.

    • Hi Sapna, welcome here and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Bill Bryson’s At Home is a great book, but my favourite travel book of his is “Notes from a small country”. Have you read that one. He has captured the idiosyncracies of the British really well :-)

    • Hey Sapna, thanks for appreciation :) I have to only thank Sudha for raising the bar so high that I had to somehow deliver :D
      I have not read At Home, but would be doing it soon. And yes, do pick up this one. You might get hooked to his style just as I have. His quotes are all exemplary indeed.

  11. I am a big big fan of Bill Bryson…I discovered him last year thanks to another blogger Sandhya…I am going to check for this book in the library…I havent read Pico Iyer at all :)

  12. I have always wondered how one can ‘understand’ the culture of a place by traveling there and staying for a few days. I guess with abundant interaction, it might be possible but otherwise, it almost takes a year to sink into the vibes of any location. I’ll have to lay my hands on these travel books that talk more about the people and happenings of a place, than just the tourist places in them. Thanks for the reco, I’ll remember the name of the book. Of course, ‘Pico Iyer’ is quite a unique and unforgettable name :)

    Destination Infinity

    • Welcome to my blog, Destination Infinity. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      You make a valid point when you say “how one can ‘understand’ the culture of a place by traveling there and staying for a few days”. Which is the reason why good travel writing is rare and why so much of “travel writing” is more like a guidebook and less about the culture of a place.

      I have found that, sometimes, non-travel books end up being a travel book for me. For example, Colours, a book on the history of colours in art turned into a travel book for me as the author, Victoria Finlay, traversed the globe hunting for the history of Indian Yellow or Cochineal Red, or Lad black or Lapis Lazuli blue, or ochre

    • The reason why this book is unpretentious is because Iyer doesn’t claim to understand the people or the culture, but faithfully records what he sees. We can make our own interpretations and come to conclusions. That is how I came to the conclusion that Paraguay is like present day India, see? :D

      You will like both Bryson and Iyer and like you say, even if you forget Bryson’s name, you will not forget Pico Iyer’s :)

      • I don’t know why but this name Bryson reminds me of John Milton, who tortured me in my young days with his paradise lost and regained and re-lost and whatever! I recently tried to read another (unknown) British author who essayed his journey into Vietnam (during the war) and trust me when I say this – I have no clue of what he was trying to convey. He was trying to be poetic on a book that is supposedly on war-journalism. Thank god, I bought that book in a second-hand shop. I threw it away after reading 30 pages or so :)

        Destination Infinity

  13. I take my travel writing in small doses, in the form of travel articles on Huffington Post or a by researching a place we plan to travel to on the internet. A full fledged travel book is therefore something I am yet to read. Pico Iyer might just be the one to get me to cross that one of my list and your review will be the one to get me to do that, Zephyr!!

    • Travel books need necessarily to be about the people and the society as much as they give info about the places to see there. In fact, the latter info can be had by googling for it, but the unique perspective of the writer comes through only when he or she is really good and are able to get below the surface and find the subtle nuances of the place. And I guess you can do Shri Ganesh of travel books with Pico Iyer and I am sure you will become a fan :)

  14. I like reviews that are neutral,reviews that leave the choice of picking up the reading to the reader.And I loved this review!

    For once I feel like reading something other than fiction. *blushing* The author is new to me.Thank you for introducing him to me.I’ll pick up the book next time I’m home.

    • Oh, thank you for the endorsement of my review being neutral :) And I know you love reading fiction. Why blush about it, eh? Dimplebarnes has mentioned Abandon by Pico Iyer, which is a romantic novel. Maybe you could begin reading him with that one and then go on to his travel books?

  15. The book, the author, and the critic, all are a discovery for me :) Zephyr, You have definitely aroused my curiosity about this book and intrigued me about this author. Am definitely going to read this one. Thanks to Zephyr and Sudhagee both for the great review

    • Psst…when someone reviews a book for the first time, it arouses a lof of curiosity about the book being reviewed. But seriously, this is a book worth reading. And for someone who doesn’t like re-reading books, I can say that I wouldn’t mind reading this again and maybe once again :)

  16. I am currently reading a book by the same author but a romantic one by the name of ‘Abandon’…Njoying it

    I love to travel and before a journey I always google out a full research on the place of travels and the history etc etc….But must confess have never read any comprehensive books on travel writings…Not that I dont want to but just a matter of less interest would be apt for me to say.

    I loved your review on this book. Mainly the quote about the difference between the tourist and the traveler….So true. Pico Iyer i think has given a beautiful insight into a world unknown…So my interest in this book is on an all time high

    I will keep this book of Pico Iyer in mind and mark it for a later read….and surely let you know!!!

    And thank you…I got introduced to one more new blog to follow. :)

    • Hi dimplebarnes. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting and hope you will keep visiting as well. Your name sounds familiar and I can’t really make out from your gravatar, but I think we have met. Is Neena your sister-in-law? We met at her place some 4 years back.

      • Now I truly believe when someone says ‘Its a small small world’…. :)

        Yep you are right, I am neena’s sis in law.. Are u Neena’s good friend Sudha??? Your name is constant in her talks with us.

          • Always on a high note when talking of you…that I think you too are aware of :D

            Its been a long long time that I haven’t seen you and hope all well with you?

            Truly a pleasant and beautiful surprise to connect to you. And now following your blog :)

            Meet up with you soon @ Neena’s….Now I need tips on being a blogger. hehehe

            Double thanks to Zephyr now!!! :)

    • Trust you to find a romantic novel by a travel writer :D That would be one book I won’t be reading by the author, for sure! If you think of this book more as a study of the people and the society, you will enjoy it more, because he hasn’t tried to sell the places as tourist spots at all. It is his journal of his travels to these places, which he finds fascinating and lonely at the same time.

      I see that you and Sudha know each other! Isn’t blog world wonderful that way? Linking people and helping find new friends? So someone is planning to start a blog, is it? :)

  17. I like Pico Iyer’s writings for the very same qualities that you have pointed out — his sense of humour, his gentle everyday observations, and and above all his writing style. I read Falling off the map quite a long time ago, and like you liked Paraguay the most. But I need to read the book again.

    I like travel writing as a genre and was actually quite surprised to find from the comments that many people do not like this genre of writing as well. And that even you were not too fond of this genre… In my opinion and from my experience, I can say that this is a difficult form of writing. I have shared this with you before that I have struggled over each and every travel post that I have written ! And then to find a piece that is so beautifully written is like finding a treasure for me :-)

    Zephyr, thank you so much for this guest post. After hearing about “The Outsiders”, and then “Falling off the Map”, what is it going to be next? ;-)

    • In addition to those, there is a wistfulness in his writing. I must find out if it is there in his other books or only in this because it is about lonely places. Isn’t it amazing that Paraguay has interested not just us, but others who have commented here too? I think it is purely due to his powers of observation. For someone who backpacked and slept in gutters on his 90 days of travel while in graduate school, no amount of adverse circumstances is too much and so he is able to appreciate the finer aspects of the place. I would agree with you that his writing is like finding a treasure. But come on, your travel writing has a charm all its own and remember, you are writing blog posts. Waiting to read a travel book by you one day :)

      Oh yes, this has just got added to the Outsiders but I need to read more times to be able to quote from it. Be warned that this is not the last you are hearing about Falling off…. from me :D

      • Writing a travel blog post and writing a travel book are two different things, Zephyr, and just because I can write the former does not automatically mean that I can write the latter. While it is easy for some bloggers to straddle both types of writing effortlessly, many other bloggers can’t and don’t appreciate or care to know the difference in the writing styles between the two; all that matters is being published.

        I belong to neither category of bloggesr and am fully aware that any book written by me at this point will read like a collection of blog posts. Right now, I’m happy doing what I’m doing at present and the occasional post that gets published in newspapers satisfies the vanity of seeing my name in print.:-) But writing a book? Sorry, your wait to read a book written by me may be a really long one. :-)

        • Don’t I know the difference between writing blog posts and getting them out in the form of a book, courtesy a certain Sudha? :P Thanks to that lesson, I didn’t make a fool of myself.

          I know that you can do a travel book or any book for that matter, except maybe fiction, and I am prepared to wait for it. Didn’t I wait for two decades to read this one? :P What is more, I will even do a review of the book :D

  18. What a great review! This definitely goes on my ‘To read’ list. That list is getting to be quite lengthy, thanks to The Sunday Book Club, BTW! :)

    So sad about Korea, where “a lucrative baby adoption business thrives” because ‘everything is illegal’. Cuba, Paraguay, Mexico seem like places I would enjoy visiting!

    All in all, sounds like an interesting book. :)

    • I am so glad that my review is liked by so many here! Beware though. I might just begin reviewing more books :D The adoption business and things being illegal is in Paraguay. North Koreans dare not do anything that their leader doesn’t ask them to do :D You should read this one. It is so full of nuggets of info sensitively told.

  19. My curiosity is aroused now. I want to read this book. I dont read many travel books–dislike them mostly. I like insightful, analytical sociological pieces and often find existing ones not engaging enough. But this one seems interesting. Also the writer seems to have led an interesting life. That also perks up my curiosity. Zephyr, your writing fantastic as usual and yes, Sudha’s blog is a safe space to get neutral reviews. Thanks both!

    • If you, like me find sociological essays interesting you should read Pico Iyer. The sensitivity is soft and hidden under the layer of humour. I would call it an indulgent tone. And hey, sometimes you learn to swim only when you are thrown at a deep end, and what a deep end this was! I am emboldened to attempt more reviews now. So beware :D

  20. This book is an all time favorite of mine. I have read many of Pico Iyer’s books, The Lady and the Monk, Video Nights in Kathmandu, The Global Soul and this. Loved all of them, but Falling off the map was definitely my favorite

    • Welcome here Thandapani. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I have read only The Lady and the Monk and this book and really like the way he writes. Must read the others as well. :-)

    • You are a real fan of Iyer, aren’t you? I want to read his Global Soul next and then work my way through his other works, except maybe his fictional ones. I am happy to note that Falling…..was your favourite and am I glad I picked this one first too.

  21. That was good to read a review from you. That too in Sudhagee’s blog. Somehow, like many, even I have never been attracted to travel books as I can read fiction. However, a travel post here and there is still okay with me though. Now, you have made me curious to pick this one for the humor of it and for knowing the quirks of all these countries.
    And Sudha, Thank you for making her do the review :) sorry about not being here as often as I used to be, not getting enough time lately..have to catch up on a lot of your older posts too :)

    • This is not a chunky one about a place but talks about such a variety of experiences with a common thread running through it. you will like it because not a para is boring. The images are vivid and the language beautiful. Iyer is an artist more than a writer. Do pick it up to begin with and then go on to his other works. I found India in all the countries, though mostly in the aberrations :(

  22. Travel books make one feel a longing to visit the described place and it is one reason they leave me with a heavy heart, as some excursions seem impossible to take. However, this one sounds like it is much more than a travel book. Perhaps it is time i got it too.

    I loved the flow of your words and the clarity with which you present. Simple and beautiful. Thank you Zephyr, and of course, Sudha..

    • This is indeed more than a travel book Deepa. I am sure you will love the way he writes and the places he has described too — even the drab North Korea and the corrupt Paraguay. Thanks for the appreciation of my writing. I would give most of the credit to Sudha for believing that I could do it :)

    • This book had appealed to me mainly for the title as I have mentioned in the post, but now that I have read it, I am going to read his other travel books too.

  23. Zephyr,
    I have never heard of this guy before but your review has made me sit and take notice. I had no idea that travel books are more than the handbooks we get at various stations. :)
    I have added him to the list of authors I have to read in the near future.

    • Oh, this is much more than a travel brochure. In fact, the book would not serve to increase tourism to the places he has written about, but if one is looking for insights into the people and the places, this is the book to read. The countries he has covered, except perhaps Australia, are mostly ignored by regular travel writers.

  24. A new perspective of a place is always engrosssing if one goes into the details! Apparently, Pico has researched the material well to have passed the threshold set by you, Zephyr!The number of books to be read keeps increasing with time getting scarcer than ever! An enjoyable review and thanks to you and Sudhagee:)

  25. Ha ha, you make me sound such a finicky reader! Like you say, a new perspective is always engrossing and he has not only done his homework but also kept his eyes and ears open to record the nuances. You said it! The number of books to be read is indeed increasing. Thanks for liking the review, Rahul!

  26. I totally lapped up this review of yours Zephyr (really beautifully shared :) )! Thank you for sharing this Sudha :)

    The whole book and experience sounds very delicious and tempting. I loooooooooooooooooove Bill Bryson and if Pico Iyer dislodged Bryson, then I am going to definitely have to read this! I can get a bit possessive about Bryson at times :P

    I love travel. I love people. And I guess, there is no running away from culture for me. A dollop of humour on top and that book must be in my library! :)

  27. Not a fan of travel book, well first of all i get jealous how come all these people are there and I am not ..

    next I will say what many say it is difficult to know everything about the place , most travellogues are from people who visit the touristy bits , which is never the true image of a place ..

    But you have done a great review and even I am getting an itch to get hold of this book for sure

    • Travel writing is a slightly different from travelling, Bikram. While the latter is for the enjoyment, the former is also work — in the sense, one is visiting the place in order to record it for others to read. So the observations have to be more objective and balanced, especially if you are looked upon as an authority. This is why you find many travel writers becoming advertisements of a place and sound like a brochure (though that is also needed to make people visit a place!).

      I am so happy that you liked this review and I have got fresh impetus to attempt more :)

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