A Thin Red Line: Expecting the Unexpected While Bicycling India’s Malabar Coast.

Communal washing ghat in rural Maharashtra, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

The driver’s eyes were the size of saucers as the local bus came charging down the pavement towards me, its sloppy steering mechanism barely able to keep it on the road, let alone on its side of the imaginary center line. The wild-eyed man threw his steering wheel back and forth with a force and energy that seemed entirely disproportionate to the zero effect it had on his aged behemoth’s front wheels. It passed me in a cloud of thick exhaust, probably headed home, close to where we had both begun our day.

The day wore on with the rhythm of a metronome as I passed trees chattering with their monkey tenants and roadside stone tablets religiously marking their five kilometer increments. Eventually, the grade began a downward trend through increasingly lush surroundings. After rounding a final curve at the base of the ravined descent, it passed a handful of houses and with neither a glance nor pause the road, like it so often did along Maharashtra State’s coast, slid seamlessly and silently into the murky estuary and disappeared.

Roadways regularly came to abrupt, water-inspired ends in this part of the subcontinent, necessitating the need for a ferry, or some sort of boat in order to continue on one’s journey, be it on foot or otherwise. The boat, or kishti as it is known in Hindi, was often motorized and able to carry a dozen people, livestock, bicycles and even motorcycles. It was left up to the ingenuity and creativity of the operator as to how everything fit in and in typical South Asian style, the boat’s departure schedule was based on when it was full, something I came to refer to as critical mass.

On more than one occasion I was forced to wait for the better part of an hour before being allowed to wheel my steed across a narrow wooden plank, carefully squeezing myself and my two-wheeled partner amongst the men, women, children, goats and chickens whom had boarded before me. It seemed as if my seat row number was always the last to be called. Eventually, we would begin our crossing as I desperately tried to keep my bicycle’s chain from eating the flowing fabric of women’s’ saris around me, balancing it precariously against the vessel’s gunwales as we ploughed towards distant landings across the way.

Coastal water taxi, Kerala, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

But, there were also instances where the boat was no more than a simple dugout canoe, and in only the odd instance, thankfully, there would be neither boat nor person in sight. At those times, I would be forced to judge the depth of the water, gauge whether the tide was incoming or outgoing, and carefully wade my bike and gear over in successive trips. This was one of those times.

The red line following the western coast of India was of the thin variety, rather than the bold. But, it was red, as opposed to the vague black lines that seemed to predominate in the road atlas of India I had been scouring for months while planning this trip. In my mind, that was sure to count for something. So, it was with this small bit of reassurance and a healthy dose of naievity that I planned my bicycling journey from Mumbai, the former Bombay, to the subcontinent’s southern tip at Kanyakumari.

People are attracted to destinations for myriad different reasons. I am a name person and a name person in the most romantic sense. So, since my first sighting of the italicized name Malabar Coast snaking along India’s contours in National Geographic’s World Atlas, it has been on my bicycle touring must-do list.

Bombay's financial district, Mumbai, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

My trip began in Mumbai, the country’s largest metropolis which balances precariously on a peninsula of re-claimed land. It was the commercial and entertainment center of the country as well as having the dubious honour of housing some of Asia’s largest slums. A bouillabaisse of humanity, it represented the hopes and dreams of a nation, as well as its in-your-face reality. At the time, India’s population was rapidly approaching one billion and over half of its citizens were under thirty years of age. Having the energy and zeal of youth and a sizeable, well-educated portion of its population, India was already the future to large corporations looking to outsource to a well-trained, more cost-effective workforce.

To me, it was the land of my mother’s birth and with relatives still calling it home, it represented an exotic and intoxicating past. Over a quarter of a century earlier, it was also the place where, in the city of Jabalpur, I learned to ride a bicycle. The result was a magnetism and interest towards her that was perhaps only matched by the interest shown in me by the outstretched palms of the destitute and less fortunate. As a westerner, at any given time I felt as if I was the focus of hundreds of pairs of curious, staring eyes.

A ferry from the Gateway of India, the ceremonial Victorian era jumping off point for British colonial rulers, to the small jetty in the sleepy end-of-the-road town of Mandwa took only an hour. Although close to the mainland, it was light years from the hustle and bustle of the seemingly bursting at the seams Mumbai. Traffic was light and the road was in relatively good shape as I pedalled through a string of towns and villages on my way to Murud-Janjira.

Portuguese colonial fort, Murud Janjira, Maharashtra, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Murud was a decent size town whose claim to fame was the stoic Portuguese fort lying just offshore. It was Ramadan and the predominantly Muslim residents of the region followed the daily fasting schedule with the lunar equivalent of a tide chart furnished by the local newspaper. The entire Muslim population, save for the young, very old, or pregnant women, refrained from both food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Then, a virtual mini celebration would erupt just after the sunset call to prayer. A flurry of activity would result as locals prepared food for the official breaking of the day’s fast, a sort of ritualistic appetizer that was the starter’s pistol for the much-anticipated gastronomic free-for-all to come.

As a visitor, I was invited to break the fast with many of the people I had met. Abstaining from both food and drink was obviously difficult, seeing as the average temperature was in the mid 30’s Celsius, and the majority of people were involved in some sort of manual labour for work. But, even with this hardship, I was envious of the social side of Ramadan. Every night was an opportunity to share the breaking of the fast with friends, family, and as was the case with myself, complete strangers. It was like my Christmas, only a month-long.

Leaving Murud gave me my first taste of the inaccuracy of government sanctioned tourist literature. In this instance, they were promoting a new hotel on a particularly beautiful and pristine stretch of coast. After pushing on late into the day in order to reach the town of Velneshwar, I soon realized that there was zero accommodation to be had, and the aforementioned tourist resort was, at best, years away from completion. The pamphlet promoting the resort was already one year old and as of yet, the ground hadn’t even been broken.

As would often be the case on my journey, this seemingly frustrating situation led to a wonderful experience with locals that might not otherwise have been possible. A neighbourhood shopkeeper and his family opened their entire home to me even though I was simply wanting to camp on their property. The following morning was nothing less than intoxicating. As I sipped chai in the filtered sunlight of their small coconut grove, the sound of waves slalomed through the gently arced palm trunks while the ever pervasive smell of the sea was being subtly diluted, sweetened by the essence of cardamom wafting upwards from my cup.

Children after school, somewhere along the coast road, Maharashtra, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Such was the adventure of manoeuvring along the Konkan Coast, the lush coastal region sandwiched between Maharashtra’s Deccan Plateau and the Arabian Sea. I would see only a few vehicles each day. The usual routine was to begin a slow gradual climb from the inlet I had just crossed until the road levelled out. Eventually, the quiet pavement would begin its regular descent towards a small town, another inlet and boat crossing, or both. Often, the first sign of human habitation was a beautiful white-washed building with amazing hand-painted billboards for Pepsi or Indian brands like Thumbs Up. The cycling contained enough variety and challenge to help the day fly by, and there was enough bottled water and soft drinks available at regular intervals to quench my thirst.

One day, after rounding a headland and pedalling and pushing through loose dirt for the better part of an hour, the road degenerated into a wide path lined with white baseball-size rocks. A short distance later, the rocks ended on what seemed to be a high lookout over a beautiful, tranquil estuary the colour of weak tea.

“So, where to now?” I asked myself. As I stood there stumped and confused, I decided to munch on one of the delicious, finger-size bananas that I had purchased in the previous town. A small group of women walked by, balancing their goods assuredly on their heads. They passed by me with indifference and began to descend the rocky headland on what seemed to be an obvious, if invisible to my untrained eye, trail. About the same time, a dhow-like sailboat came into view and waited for them to wade out and board.

Choking down my last bite, I launched my loaded bicycle down to the water’s edge, waving futilely at the now departing boat. It continued across the small estuary to the beach on the far side and unloaded its passengers before, thankfully, returning for its next load, me.

After removing my panniers and bags, I waded out with my now incredibly light steed over my head. One of the smiling crew followed me on the return trip to help me with the rest of my gear. They took me to the same beach where the women disembarked and as I smiled and embarrassingly mumbled my thanks, I held out a small wad of tattered rupee notes and left my travel budget in the hands of the gods. So worn were some of the notes that they resembled scraps of parchment with torn, corner-less edges and a translucence that must have been the result of decades of finger-oiled transactions. Some were so dark in colour that they were illegible, at least to me. Ten rupees seemed to be the usual rate for a bike and rider. At about twenty-five cents, it was a bargain.

Confirming directions was always a good idea, but not always easy in rural India. Hindi and English, although both official languages nationally, were often of little help when the lingua franca was one of the many semi-official state languages such as Marathi in Maharashtra, or Kaanada in Karnataka.

Maps, although useful, could not be relied upon. They often showed roads where no roads existed and, just as often, abandoned me to dead ends and unexpected river crossings where roads had been clearly shown. It seemed as if even the government hadn’t a clue as to where the “coast road” actually went. All of the tourist pamphlets and information offered by the state-run tourism offices were purposely vague when it came to useful logistics and directions for travel down the sun-drenched ribbon of land they were actively promoting as the “next big thing”.

Shopkeepers could sometimes provide help. Pointing in the direction I was travelling, I would attempt the name of what I understood to be the next big town, making sure to include a questioning inflection on the end. It was a simple but effective way of staying on course. Though, more often than not, my query was met with what I labelled the head “waggle”. It was about as non-committal and frustrating as you can imagine when one is looking for absolutes and confirmation. Neither an affirmative up and down nod, nor a dismissive side to side shake, it was the confusing, rolling, head-tilting swell that was part “yes”, part “no” and mostly, “if you say so.” Welcome to India.

As it turned out, the most reliable source of help on the road came from the medical clinics I would pass in many towns. Most, if not all doctors and nurses received their education in English. So, even if they were directionally challenged, I could at least stop and proceed to question them in more detail about the road up ahead. I would ask them to write down the names of any upcoming towns in the local language, allowing me to recognize them on the road signs I might encounter, all of which would be completely devoid of English.

Maharashtra coast, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Of course, the only definitive confirmation occurred when I could see the sea over my right shoulder. Then, and only then, was I absolutely sure of my southerly direction. When the road ventured inland and the coast was out of sight, I would rely on my compass if for no other reason than to make sure I wasn’t heading in the absolute wrong direction. Some intersections, mainly due to the number of available options, proved to be a calculated risk with the resulting extra distance pedalled chalked up to experience.

The days flew by as I rode past vast empty beaches, through bustling district centers the likes of Ratnagiri and Malwan, and alongside further forts such as Vijayadurg and Sindhudurg. Then, just as I had gotten used to the up and down nature of the Konkan Coast, as well as its regular nautical interludes, a much larger vehicle ferry took me to a fort named Terekhol and the state of Goa.

Mother and daughter sorting the catch, Goa, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Goa was a land of hedonistic pursuits, claustrophobic weekly flea markets and a repository for travellers who ran the gamut from hippie to yuppie and everything in between. Virtually all side roads headed toward the beach, lined with enough accommodation and dining options to satisfy any taste. Fish and seafood were on every menu, and so it should have been. It was fresh, caught overnight and brought ashore by the local fisher folk early each morning while the travelling throngs slept off the previous night’s festivities.

As it turned out, the most amazing cycling, and an unexpected surprise, proved to be along Goa’s true coast road – the beaches themselves. Both north and south of the colonial inspired capital Panaji, I was able to bicycle for many kilometers along the hard, compacted and ever shifting swath of sand that danced between the waterline and the deeper, looser, un-bikable area up near the dune grasses. Eventually, a river or rocky headland would force me inland and onto a southerly inspired secondary road. In this way, except for in and around Panaji, I was able to avoid the congestion and characterless persona of National Highway 17.

Fruit? Benaulim Beach, Goa, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Finally, after the better part of a week, I bid adieu to the Christian-infused architecture of Old Goa, as well as the sparkling white necklace of beaches named Anjuna, Calangute, Colva and Benaulim. It was with mixed feelings that I continued south towards the next Indian state, Karnataka.

Re-joining the highway just north of the state border, it was late in the day with traffic predictably light. Here, I would meet the only example of in your face police presence along my entire journey. Actually, he was a soldier and sat on a simple, steel folding chair on the road’s shoulder, next to a raised bar that must have served as a barricade or road block when lowered. He was so unassuming that I almost missed seeing him.

As I flew by his makeshift post he whistled me back. Turning around more out of curiosity than obligation, I couldn’t help but wonder where his guard-house or office had gone? As far as I could tell, we were kilometers from anywhere and there was no sign of an official looking building, a vehicle, or even a table to be seen. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where did he eat his lunch?”

Pushing myself towards him, I offered my usual namaste and was met with a quizzical, outwardly stretched arm with an upwardly facing palm and a flick of the head, which might have been him sniffing the air. But, in this case, I interpreted it as, “Where are you heading?”

Surveying the situation a little further, I spotted the soldier’s companion, a vintage firearm that was more musket than rifle. It was old, British, and probably an Enfield. Sitting lazily between the guard’s legs, it pointed upwards but safely out to sea. It soon became obvious that he did not speak a word of English. So, after the requisite attempt at conversation, and the resultant head waggle response, I decided to secure my release by flashing my credentials.

I had been carrying my retired uncle’s business card throughout my trip. Yes, my Indian uncle, born and raised, was long since retired. But, the list of positions and appointments on his card were impressive: vice-chancellor of this, director of that, Indira Gandhi’s commissioner on such-and such, and member of so-and-so’s board. I had kept it in case I met with any bureaucratic red tape and this was the time I chose to play my trump card.

Emphasizing my Indian lineage I held out my get out of jail free card, turning it over so the local authority could survey the extensive list of my relative’s accomplishments. He tried to get a closer look as I pointed with authority to every entry, reading them aloud and with gusto, albeit in English. Then, I deftly returned it to my travel pouch and with the timing and speed of a want-to-be border runner I bolted, comforted in the fact that he had no vehicle and, if he possessed a bicycle hidden somewhere, I would still leave him and his ancient British Raleigh in my multi-speed, derailleur-enhanced dust. I cringed, half expecting a volley of turn-of-the-century buckshot to rain down on me during my escape. Eventually, his calls faded into the humid air as I headed toward Karwar, the first town of any significant size in Karnataka.

Karnataka was the state I knew least about. Initially, I looked upon it only as the four-day stretch linking Goa and Kerala, my ultimate destination. As it turned out, it was a pleasant ride along an undeveloped coast, through manageable urban centers like Bhatkal and Coondapoor, and included some newly built tourist lodging. These were often just comfortably cool canvas tents with cot beds and, believe it or not, electric fans.

Three quarters of the way through the state and a half day still from the town of Udipi, the river Sita lackadaisically coasted down toward the Arabian Sea. It didn’t quite reach it, preferring instead to parallel the road, turning it into a causeway between the resulting tamarind-coloured lagoon, and the turquoise blue iridescence of the ocean. I stopped early, intent on spending the night at the Turtle Bay Tent Resort.

Royal Enfield motorcycles, Karnataka coast, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

It was a Sunday and I shared the shaded, open air restaurant with a group of university students from MIT. They were engineers, naturally. What else would one expect from the Manipal Institute of Technology? Albeit, not as familiar to me as the American center of learning which shared the same acronym, MIT students were some of the brightest minds in south India and they often headed down to the coast for a well-deserved break.

Ironically, Enfields also accompanied these three young men. But unlike the one held by the border guard I left back in Goa, these British Enfields were of the riding, rather than the firing variety. Polished and babied the way only motorcycles of great distinction would be, these Indian Harley-Davidsons were a source of great pride for their young owners. A stunning combination of timeless styling and impressively throaty sound effects, they were also, unfortunately, a prime example of classic English electrical and mechanical unreliability. But today, standing at attention, waxed and gleaming in the shade of the resort’s dirt parking area, the vintage stable mates were nothing short of magnificent.

Back on the road, the quiet lazy coast I had come to take for granted came to an abrupt, bumper to bumper end as I approached the city of Mangalore. The city itself was downhill and off the main highway. But, at this moment, I was part of a diesel-belching logjam that was going nowhere fast and seemed to stretch as far as my eye could see.

Remnants of an earlier age, timeless Chinese fishing nets, the Backwaters, Kerala, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

God’s Own Country. This was the sales pitch trumpeted by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation, as well as the slogan that represented my ultimate destination and a Shangri-La of sorts. It was an exotic land of lush greenery, a decidedly entrepreneurial population and an inviting, although slightly oxymoronic mix of forward thinking and laid back attitude. A land squeezed between the mountainous Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, it was home to the western world’s first freely elected communist government, a meandering intra-coastal waterway known as the Backwaters, the highest literacy rate in India and, unfortunately for me, the place where the “coast road” and busy National Highway 17 became one and the same.

The bicycling was anything but relaxing. I jockeyed for position with a constant stream of traffic, which included bicycles, scooters, livestock, pedestrians, motorcycles, three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, ramshackle buses, and of course, countless trucks with the same instructions painted on their rear panels, “Honk Please.” How appropriate, I thought.

The sound of horns was nothing new to me, having cycled in South and Southeast Asia previously. Here in Kerala, the traffic was constant and the incessant bleating of horns, a bouillabaisse of differing tones and pitch, became nothing more than background noise; a constant din with the peaceful solitude of Maharashtra and more recently Karnataka but a faded memory, slipping away faster than a fresh-squeezed lime soda on a sweltering afternoon.

Days in congestion left me exhausted, more than a little agitated and covered in a day’s worth of sweat, dust and road grime. Such was also the fate of the beautiful flowering Bougainvillea that highlighted homes and businesses along much of my journey. The once effervescent shades of crimson, tangerine and fuchsia were now all wearing a jacket of traffic inspired filth.

On some days my clothes were literally black, forcing me to begin my bucket shower routine fully clothed. I would fill the bucket with slightly hot water and drench myself with the supplied cup. After this soak cycle, I would remove my clothes, push them to the side and proceed to scour the day’s dirt from my body. Once done, feeling clean and refreshed, I would pour a small single use packet of laundry soap into the remaining water in the bucket, lather it up with more hot water, then proceed to scrub and wring my clothes clean.

Successive days of this routine began to take their toll on me. Then, just when I was ready to pack in the cycling and throw myself and my beat up steed on the first train destined for a quiet, relaxing beach, the unexpected happened – a state holiday! The roads were eerily quiet, and the majority of shops and businesses were soundly sleeping and would remain so for the rest of the day. Taking advantage of the welcomed solitude, I spun my way with renewed vigor and energy to Kochi and its satellite Ernakulam, also known by its old name Cochin, the largest city I had seen since leaving Mumbai weeks earlier.

Coconuts drying along the roadside, Kerala, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

The morning I left Ernakulam dawned sunny and warm. But, departing town meant that I was stuck in the morning commuter traffic heading into neighbouring Kochi. It was here that I had my first and only traffic accident. I was side-swiped by a bus. Yes, the clapped out diesel-belching Tatas that had been my daily, although fleeting companions up to this point had turned on me.

Side-swiped might not be the best description. I was, to put it more accurately, side-rubbed. We were both stopped, waiting with the rest of the morning traffic to cross the causeway that led to the turnoff for both Kochi and the coast road. Side by side, we were the way you might expect two friends of sorts to be. Then, without warning, the bus driver pulled away, his ineffectual steering pointing him on a collision course with my panniers, handlebars and the right side of my body. The subsequent rubbing against me of his peeling, painted sides was not unlike an elephant exfoliating its leathery hind against a convenient tree.

My indignant yells finally drew the attention of the already stressed driver, as well as the passengers on my side of the bus. He looked at me nervously while absorbing a phalanx of verbal condemnation from his passengers on my behalf. Perhaps aware of how close he had come to shaving my legs, he slammed his beast into second and rattled off. I was left to contemplate not only the red paint souvenir left behind on my handlebars and packs, but his requisite and decidedly apologetic version of the head waggle.

Shortly thereafter, I left most of the traffic behind as I headed south towards Allappuzha and the official jumping off point for the Backwaters. It was a fast ride over a flat and relatively quiet road, at least by Keralan standards. Even though I only passed through one town of any size, the scene was decidedly urban. A steady stream of buildings flew by, consisting of homes, shops and lumber mills with their Asiatic elephant workforce putting in a hard day of stacking timber. I pedalled along to the rhythm of the work day and rolled into Alappuzha, officially dubbed the “Venice of the East” by Indian tourism officials, by early afternoon.

The canals of Allepey, Kerala, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

It was a lazy, hazy day with the main street straddling an olive green, water hyacinth-choked canal. The air was as thick and heavy as the waterway and marine vegetation. The Kerala Tourism Development Corporation Hotel was a multi-story building complete with a rooftop restaurant commanding a sweeping view of the street below. A great place to imbibe in a few well-deserved Kingfisher beers, it was also a perfect spot to succumb to the sporting event of the season with the locals – the World Cup of Cricket was broadcast live. My hotel was also strategically placed across the street from the ticket office for passenger boats shuttling to Kollam via the Backwaters; the brackish, slow-moving system of waterways that joined countless communities in the area. The medians of this multi-lane aquatic highway were thin fingers of land, some no wider than a few feet, buoyantly maintaining homes, schools, shops, temples, churches, garden plots, chickens, livestock and coconut groves.

The boat cruise distinguished itself as a relaxing way to cover the distance done in a full day of cycling while exerting no more energy than that required to get up and move to another seat with a different view. The vessel was long and narrow, a larger Indian version of the African Queen with a covered passenger compartment composed of hard, inward-facing bench seating. The preferred seats, business-class if you will, although exposed to the burning sun, were the plastic lawn chairs up top with their unobstructed, three-hundred and sixty degree view.

During our voyage on the following day, children raced along the adjacent shore as my fellow passengers and I resigned ourselves to drinking copious amounts of bottled water to stave off heat stroke. We motored through dilapidated, rusted-out locks where the water passed through gaping holes in seen-better-days gates. The end of our long parched day brought us into Kollam and as the sun set, my bicycle and I searched for our nightly lodging.

The next morning saw me back in the saddle and persuaded to follow a hand-painted sign onto a nondescript secondary road that took me off the main highway toward Varkala. Varkala turned out to be an embryonic resort that, at the time, was still under the radar of most independent travellers looking for the next undiscovered beach destination. The writing was already on the wall. A smattering of budget accommodations surrounded the rice paddies, with an unfortunate disregard for both planning and sewage disposal. But, there was a string of open-air restaurants perched atop a cliff overlooking a strand of pristine beach, and even a small luxury resort with an all you can eat buffet.

Looking north from Varkala, Kerala, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Here, the days disappeared as I cycled through the coconut plantations, ate lazy all-day breakfasts while overlooking the sea, and explored the beautiful palm-fringed coastline to the north with its fishing community and quizzically protruding mosque spires. It was a time of introspection, allowing me to fully appreciate the land I had pedalled through, the sea which had such a profound influence on that land and, most importantly, the people who made the other two items all the more relevant.

Eventually, I left Varkala, cycling through Trivandrum and on to the beach town of Kovalam which, if it were a movie, would have been called “Goa: the sequel”. A day’s ride later I would be in Kanyakumari, the official meeting of the waters where the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal flowed into the Indian Ocean at the Gulf of Mannar. South of this point, Cape Comorin, lay the island nation of Sri Lanka. Needless to say, the long-anticipated end of the road at India’s southern tip was somewhat anti-climactic. It was just that, the end of the road. There were tourists, both Indian and foreign, scooping up souvenir sand and venturing out to the Hindu temple. Others were content to take in the view with a long drawn out breath, as if looking off the end of the world.

Looking back, Varkala seemed the more fitting end for me. The Hindu village with its small lake-sized bathing ghat, flanked by a gorgeous coast and bordered by an equally picturesque Muslim enclave to its north was, like the entire Malabar Coast, more than the sum of its parts.

It was India’s west coast in microcosm and encapsulated my journey perfectly: alternately Hindu and Muslim, with a dash of differing humanities for taste. Blessed with a forward thinking population, it still danced with an earlier time. Having enjoyed the trade and communications benefits of location in the past, it was now feverishly preparing its place in the future. An aromatic, pleasantly spicy blend of cultures, history and religion, it was a place where, when searching a person’s eyes, you were given a window into their soul. Fittingly, it became the spiritual end of my Indian bicycling adventure and voyage of discovery along a certain thin red line.

Varkala beach, India. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

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