My Vagina In Morocco – Mindela Ruby
I first detect it while tracking down Caravaggio and Goya paintings with a soggy map of the Prado baroque galleries in hand: an infelicity, or tenderness, in my lady parts. But there’s no time for abnormalities of the gazoot on this trip my honey and I scrimped all year to pay for. Madrid is our jump-off point for venturing into Morocco’s Land Of A Thousand Kasbahs and other sites of lore. Under the rushed and jet-lagged circumstances, any errant body sensations are best dismissed. Goya’s canvas, The Third of May, rivets me. The captive among the corpses, gesticulating before the firing squad!
Experience has taught me that inklings of pain, inflammation, or girly indisposition mostly pan out to be nothing to fuss about. My job on vacation is to walk my ankles sore on cobblestone and overeat jamón Ibérico. My immune system’s job is supplying antigen protection, 24/7.
The other stopover en route to North Africa is a former Muslim stronghold of Spanish Andalusia, Granada, reached by train and bus. During a meander on foot along its winding roads, the same not-so-niceness of the undercarriage vies for my attention. Apparently the body’s immune stronghold slacks off on its duty. Attempting to bolster my natural defense mechanism, I shower before dinner and change into cotton Jockey briefs instead of another chafing Hanky Panky thong. Nuns sing in the bed and breakfast’s adjacent convent, a dozen voices rich with lilting faith. My pink-purple skinny jeans stay packed in the rolly bag. I clad my loins instead in the loose lounge pants already worn during eighteen sticky, out-bound flight hours.
Soon, on the concrete terrace of the Carmen Mirador di Aixa Restaurante, I luxuriate in billowing, breathable comfort, across from my partner of decades. The night breeze swirls vaporizing candle paraffin from table to table. We’ve ordered a broad bean salad for a starter. Our stomachs growl for it. The lit Moorish Alhambra rises before us, a castle-keep formerly inhabited by emirs and sultans and emperors. The fortress of a dream, it elicits El Abayzin romance.
The mystique of travel lingers the next day through a taxi transfer to the sun-kissed port town, Tarifa; through a ferry crossing of the Gibraltar Strait of legend; through debarking into the Tangier of Paul Bowles. In his stories I’ve recently read, ex-patriots in the teeming International Zone crave a hard-to-come-by sense of order. His reckless travelers escape into Morocco’s ready wildness only to suffer its chastisements. Bowles depicts the desert as an unforgiving yet tempting stomping ground for outsiders such as me.
At my request our pre-arranged driver steers toward old Tangier and parks in the Place 9 April Square. It’s high noon. We light out for a medina stroll. The Call to Prayer’s haunting treble broadcasted over the mosque’s loud speaker accompanies our desolate circuit. But with a schedule to adhere to, in short order we must drive on and get delivered to Chefchaouen. The town is five hundred years old and so awash in fetching shades of blue that, wandering its lanes at dusk, I know only cyan, turquoise, sky, cobalt.
In the morning a local guide, Mohamed, meets us in the riad lobby. The strapping but stoop-shouldered thirty-one-year-old conducts us, oohing and ahhing, past intricately tiled fountains, hammam baths, and communal ovens redolent of baking bread. Ranging through the old town mazes there’s an affect flatness to steadfast Mohamed I can’t help but notice. Outside the Bou Inania Madrasa, I say, “Have you led tours a long time?”
“No,” he confesses. “I graduated from law school three years ago. But it hasn’t been possible to practice law. The fees charged for the bar exam and professional license are too high. I cannot save that much money. It is the same for my sisters.”
“Your sisters also went to law school?”
“It was my mother’s dream for her children to be attorneys.” The guide pauses and adds, “Because of the system, none of us fulfill our goal. We live in our parents’ home, trying not to be burdens.”
We proceed across the shady town outskirts in downbeat silence. There are late stirrings in households around us, windows squeaking open, babies’ cries. During the Ramadan fasting month, folks are obliged to rise before dawn to take a meal prior to sunrise. The ballyhoo in the street at 4:45 AM this morning woke, shocked, and excited us. What a thing, to parade the streets, banging drums in the darkness, hollering reminders to eat before the next fifteen hours of going without. The morning staff at the riad explained that people take a simple meal and return to sleep until the first call of the muezzin. Muslims often rest throughout the morning during Holy Month in the summer season—“unless our job is to serve the breakfast to guests,” the waiter tiredly added, placing glass bowls of yogurt and fruit salad before us.
In one day a wealth of information about the pillars of Islam has come our way. I am learning from our guide some realities about this kingdom’s administration, too. The court of King Mohammed VI puts a high price on licenses like the one required to practice law. The country’s legal profession appears to favor wealthy elitists with shared status quo values and to disfavor the upwardly mobile sector, young Moroccans who might enter the system in order to fight for reforms. This is the barrier our consort Mohamed cannot surmount.
We pass beneath breath-taking painted plaster arches, in blue hues explained as a legacy of the region’s long-gone Jewish inhabitants. These people maintained the tradition of Biblical Israelites who colored prayer shawls with a shellfish dye. The blue plaster rinses made the former Chaouen Jews think of the sky and God in heaven.
No other tourists ramble in the late June heat. Some businesses are shut down for the duration of the Ramadan holiday. I’m not sure how grateful our guide feels about these few hours of business we’ve brought him during the slow season. Of course he is aware we hired a travel booking agency that doesn’t come cheap. We chose it because the owners pay fair wages to all employees and outsource our care and feeding to many different locals. But perhaps traveling Americans of any means—we who, at least on the surface, seem so lucky and affluent, even an underpaid adjunct college teacher like me—would bum out our dissatisfied Mohamed.
Or perhaps it’s not us but the daily fasting prompting the funk. No doubt dehydration, not a drop of water passing his lips, is making our escort look like he’s always swallowing a bitter taste. I don’t mind one bit that he’s not a slick industry pro reciting a memorized script written by company management.
For the tour’s finale, we trudge up the Spanish Mosque dirt hill outside the Bab al Ansar gate. The shunned mosque, Mohamed explains, stands as a relic of colonization’s evil. In the fullness of midday heat my linen chinos droop with perspiration. Mild discomfort that in Spain registered as innocuous now seems to cascade into trouble in my pants, a bulging, itching deviance between my legs. I defy the escalation of symptoms and halt at the crest of the hill to gaze at a sleepy village in the distance.
“Our house is there,” Mohamed says, pointing to modest dwellings below. “A fifty-minute walk to town.”
On his face I spy love of family, pride of place…and the disappointment of dashed dreams.
We circumnavigate the mosque, nodding at the two stoic soldiers guarding its empty shell with semi-automatic rifles. Descending the hill, we watch hijab-wearing housewives and mothers wash their wool rugs in the river and haul them onto rocks to dry. “No woman here accepts a marriage proposal from a man who lacks a good paying job or car,” Mohamed says. Loneliness, horniness, resignation churn in his dark eyes.
Relative to his plight, a little first world female trouble strikes me as inconsequential. Still, after the tour’s conclusion and late lunch of lamb tagine, I see fit to strip from the waist down and loll on the bed of our fifth-floor Riad Lina room for some reprieve.
Drawn to my pantslessness, my husband hops up beside me on the smooth sheet. Normally, exotic turf draws out the frisky side of me, but I bat him away, protesting, “I’m festering in sweat.” Desiring simple alleviation, I feel more off than on. It’s easier if my old dear thinks of the heat as the reason for my refusal.
Leaving Chefchaouen a day later in the company of Hamid, our driver, we take a whirl through the Roman Ruins of Volubilis and the imperial granary and royal stables of Meknes before plunging into swooning hot, white, convoluted Fes, site of the world’s oldest library. In Ryad Salama, with the boon of in-room Wifi, my Denial phase concludes when I surreptitiously email my Women’s Health doctor at Kaiser.
“I have an intensifying infection and am about to head to remote Moroccan mountain and desert regions,” I type in the form’s designated box. “Please recommend a common antibiotic I can request in Fes.” My message includes a graphic run-down of descriptors that is TMI for anyone other than Dr. Simon. Chronicling the pestilence to a professional whose responsibility includes my welfare calms my nerves.
Writing an email, sadly, does not vanquish microbes. My secret affliction gains ground over the next forty-eight hours of sight-seeing in Morocco’s cultural center. Najjarine. Seffarine. Chouara. El Jdid. Slogging through attractions, our Fes guide, Abdelfetah, insists he draws strength from Ramadan fasting. “It builds endurance and patience that I can be proud of,” he says, grinning with stiff determination.
Meanwhile, my physical woundedness ushers in nonphysical pain. The pain of owning up to my fragility and having to admit that far from being invincible, I am the one whose resistance gets lowered by the rigors of travel. I bear the unsexy stigma of illness. I don’t want to slow down or get distracted from the enrichment and wonder surrounding me. But it gets less easy to throw myself into the itinerary.
The last night in Fes, we’re seated in the splendorous, lantern-lit, multi-columned Palais Amani dining courtyard, which we have all to ourselves, as if in a romance cinema. The hotel is the former Deco compound of a wealthy fabric merchant. Instead of relishing the lushly-landscaped, sparkling-pool privacy, I squirm, contort, swelter, and excuse myself to the lavish bathroom twice to rinse off sweat and yank my slacks below my knees for momentary cooling. Returning to the table, I wolf down my grilled sea bream without savoring it, so eager am I to cut the indulgent evening short and retreat to the comfort of disrobed seclusion. I am not myself.
“What’s wrong?” my husband asks as we wend through the derbs and fondouks to our riad hideaway. Ahead of us shuffles the chaperone supplied by the restaurant. Bo-Mohamed is five feet tall and over sixty years old. He speaks no English, French, or Arabic. Only Berber Amazight. I can easily explain to my husband what’s ailing me without Bo-Mohamed understanding a word, but I shake my head as we pass young males smoking in the shadows of shuttered souks. Once we bid fond farewell to our guardian and get ourselves tucked behind closed door three flights up at Salama, I confess to the week of irritation and denial I have braved. The air conditioner blows hard on my nakedness. “I emailed my Kaiser OB-GYN two days ago,” I say, “but she hasn’t replied, and whatever this is is getting worse.”
“Can I see?” my trusty sidekick says, trying to be helpful.
I am mortified at the thought. “I feel bad enough about this debility,” I answer, “without putting it on display.”
“Maybe I should find a doctor.”
My boo grabs his mobile phone off his nightstand. “I’ll call Hamid for help.”
Our driver, a 50ish travel industry specialist, excels at having his clients’ backs. Over our time together so far, it’s been easy to grow fond of him and how he has handled our needs, that have tended to be minor: bathrooms, water, spice shops, timely arrivals. Yet the intimate quandary I confront now seems a bridge too far to cross.
“Please, don’t,” I say. “Anyway, we’re leaving early tomorrow.”
“There’ll be no medical services in the Atlas or the Sahara. You need to take care of yourself before we leave civilization.”
Our driver lives in Fes, knows it inside out. His Fassi wife happens to be a doctor. A research physician who presumably has reputable contacts I shouldn’t poo-poo.
“Okay, go ahead and call,” I whine.
For a second or two, relief. Acceding to help has the effect of anesthesia.
“I apologize for calling so late, Hamid,” my husband prefaces, before launching into a bare bones report of the problem. I lie on the bed, stung by the absurdity of one man from California speaking about his wife’s vagina to a Moroccan Muslim man who’s not much more than a stranger. Is this the Islamic way, men making arrangements for women’s every need, even the most private, in effect infantilizing us? Be that as it may, asking Hamid for assistance on my own behalf would be a worse proposition. “We appreciate your wife helping us find a doctor for the morning,” my husband says.
“If I think I need it then,” I interject.
My mate repeats these words into the phone and exchanges goodnights.
The instant the call ends I feel a nauseating jolt of violation. Words have exposed me to a service provider whose car I’ll sit in over many more hours. What chains of thought has the call unleashed in his mind? Granted, I have previously felt exposed and embarrassed while traveling with pink eye, sunburn, or a stuffy red nose in plain view on my face. In the past, my breasts also have made me self-conscious in foreign places, cloaked in tops that aren’t especially sheer or plunging or clingy at home but that on the road appear inappropriate. Tee-shirts, it turns out, signify cultural relativity. Yet my cooch, the core of my womanhood, has never before been presented openly in conversation on vacation for strangers to contemplate.
“I shouldn’t have spoken up,” I glumly say.
“Sleep on it,” says my boo.
He’s soon snoring in rapid-fire bursts while slumber eludes me. I toss in the dark, ear plugs wedged in tight, the sound of pumped blood emphatic in my Eustachian tubes. I try picturing an office, a practice, a doctor that Hamid’s wife might line up on short notice. Are gynecologists in Morocco all men? Are any of them men? I lack the gumption to ask about the doctor’s gender. I don’t want to imply I don’t trust a male Moroccan doctor to be professional. Will a question be taken to mean I assume they are too backward in this proud country to produce qualified female clinicians? Already asking the favor of a last minute medical appointment, I don’t want to presumptuously express stipulations and fears.
Then there’s the language issue. Will the doctor speak English? Will the nurse? Or will they speak French? I try to translate into French what I should say: Ma vagine ne march pas? I once resorted to using this basic verb construction in the south of France when the toilet of our rental villa wouldn’t flush. In fact, le clef, our door key, ne march pas also on that same trip. We had to accost a gendarme on the street to get assistance in tracking down the local property landlord so we could get back inside to our malfunctioning toilette.
I look up the French vocabulary word for swollen on my i-Phone and find too many adjectives to distinguish one from the other. I run vagina through the online translator, to confirm I’m using the correct grammatical article with the French noun. According to my phone, the word is male. Not vagine. Vagin. Mon vagin. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t want to pronounce my male vagina to anyone.
Waking at dawn after precious little sleep, I visualize my feet in stirrups, my aging genitals under a lamp and doctor’s scrutiny. I used to be young and shameless. No more. I don’t want my withers becoming a Muslim doctor’s defining image of me or my country. Thus, it’s decided: I will not sacrifice vacation time for a checkup. I can make it through the trip without intervention or fuss. What am I, a wienie? There’s athlete’s foot fungal ointment in my toiletry baggie. Even though I peg my ailment as bacterial, I apply ointment to the area in question. What will a few daubs of liniment hurt?
In the High Atlas Mountains, we hike in the Toubkal Range, led by yet another Mohamed, a Mohamed of another stripe, a happy and content young buck recently betrothed to a wife via arranged marriage. His joy is heartening. The notched Jurassic massif view lifts my spirit. Later, overnighting in the scenic backwater town of Ouirgane, I write to Dr. Simon again: Nevermind about request. Self-treating with Miconazole Nitrate. Hoping for improvement.
The desert expedition is next. As he opens the SUV door for me, Hamid asks in a kind, confidential tone, “Feeling alright today?”
“On the mend, yes, thank you,” I say, pointing at my better half. “I’m borrowing his boxer underwear.” At Hamid’s perplexed reaction, I blush. Why do I cough up incomprehensible trivia? Will I never learn to shut up?
On the road I inquire about purchasing a loose flowing Moroccan djellaba robe, like many Moroccan women wear. Responsive as ever, Hamid drives to small town Rissani, the improbable sleepy cradle of the reigning Alaouite dynasty. The tour company’s desert coordinator has joined us, to ensure our shopping success. Few retailers in this remote corner of the world are open during Ramadan, but in one tiny trinket mercantile, the men locate a single flowing garment that fits my petite build, a bright pink “gondoura.” The market’s owner says, “Gondoura, it is the same as djellaba.” Though not entranced with the garish design, I buy it, tucking the bag into my backpack.
Waiting in our Merzouga outpost hotel for a late-day transport into the Sahara Desert, I open a return email message from Dr. Simon, who instructs me to keep up with the medicated cream and airings out. Her advice does not convince me, but at this point, there’s no other option. Even without an anatomical treatment zone to obsess over, chilling in my birthday suit in the temperature controlled Riad Madu room is a wise ploy with the outdoor afternoon Fahrenheit hitting 120. A desert coping mechanism.
An expert local sand driver totes us out to the Erg Chebbi where we ride camels at sunset. We climb a golden peak and snap epic dune photos. The tent bivouac for overnight is pure Berber hospitality. After a simple evening meal in the camp, the music starts. I repair to our stifling tent and change into my gondoura kaftan, allowing myself the uninhibited freedom of going commando within its long pink draping. The camp is safely dark.
Back at the fire, I drum on the ta’arijas with the staff and other guests and gamely dance about. Everyone claps and laughs. One of the camel-tenders smiles. “You wear the pajama,” he tells me with twinkling eyes. The music dies down. Lugging a small rug with us, my old boo and I traipse off in the dark to lie atop a dune and stare for an hour at unknown pale stars in bright moonlight. We hold hands and listen to dromedaries snorting nearby.
As usual on overseas trips, I wake before dawn. I rouse my husband for sunrise in the Sahara. We lumber to a spot on a nearby hillock and face the glow emanating from the horizon. I wear a red sundress, men’s boxer shorts peeking beneath. The honeymoon couple staggers from their tent, a chatty white Bermudan and her jokester Irish husband. “I’m a hot mess!” the new wife insists, chuffing to join us and blowing back her damp bangs. I, on the other hand, feel in my element, at my best in the clear, dry desert air that is proving to be inhospitable to fungus. The hot mess offers to take our picture with my phone. When I later study her shots, I see myself as beautiful and at ease in the peachy daybreak light. Witnessing the gorgeous spectacle of the rising sun, I say a prayer to the drugstore medication for letting me take my body for granted again. If only I’d thought to use it sooner, how much less plagued this journey might have been.
After breakfast, we set off in a 4×4, kicking up a burst of dust with the desert coordinator, a Halawi date farmer and community organizer, leading the charge. Our destination is a middle-of-nowhere enclave of polygamists who roam the land in search of sufficient forage for their sheep herds. They are two brothers, their four wives, and a filthy crew of small fry who greet us with decorous handshakes that break my heart. Their homestead looks stone age primitive except for the motorbike parked in the dirt and the fact that the children know how to swipe through photos of themselves on our smart phones. On the drive out following our visit, the desert coordinator says, “Most tourists don’t want to see the nomad compound.”
“Because of the poverty?” my husband says.
“I don’t want to live in a bubble,” I say, “shut off from the rest of humanity and their struggle to survive with dignity.”
“I like how you use words, Madam Teacher,” the desert coordinator, a man with a degree in Islamic studies, says. “You must come live at my compound for a year, teach me better English. Each day we can have our lessons.”
There’s a sly, polygamous subtext to his suggestion that makes me laugh; the desert coordinator enjoys joking with the clients. “It’s a plan,” I say. “But I insist on having air conditioning in the summer.”
“Air conditioning? Oh, you are a demanding woman.”
He means I’m soft. Self-indulgent. Not long-suffering like Moroccans. But I have quietly borne my own trials on this trip. The thought reminds me to ask, “By the way, Tata, is the gondoura I bought considered pajamas?”
“Out here it doesn’t matter.”
I don’t press the point. Ourzazate lies ahead. The Ait Benhaddou ksar, a massive walled compound of clay brick earthen architecture once a famed post along the camel caravansary trading route, sits in wind-scoured harmony with the golden luster of the land.
From there, the red buzz of Marrakesh awaits. Our city guide in this locale is named Mohamed. He tells us most Moroccan families name their first son Mohamed. He leads us reveling through the Majorelle Garden and Maison de la Photographie, then we all share an hour’s cab ride to his village house.
We join a smiling fellowship of non-English speakers, his wife, sons, mother and brother, for the evening l’ftour breakfast. Showing off his abode’s new indoor plumbing, Mohamed confides in us that Moroccans have looser standards of hygiene than we Americans do. Immediately after, steaming bowls of homemade harira soup, made of who-knows-what unrefrigerated meat, are handed to us. It’s scrumptious, as are the dates, chebakia cookies, and whipped fruit juice.
Another Mohamed works the night shift at Riad Adore, greeting us when we straggle back late, and the chef who teaches our cooking class at Café Clock in the morning bears the name as well. We tell the talkative chef about “law school Mohamed” and “newlywed Mohamed” (but leave out “loose hygiene Mohamed”). While teaching us how to make msemen, what must be the most addictively buttery carbohydrate in the universe, Chef Mohamed explains the benefits of arranged marriage. The son’s mother and her relatives carefully screen the prospective spouse. They watch her perform house cleaning chores and rate the results. She must cook them a full meal to display her talent in the kitchen. The old women visit the hammam bath with the maiden, to check out her unclothed physique and warrant that it will please the treasured son and bear healthy offspring. One trait not required for brides-to-be, I notice, is literacy. Even so, our culinary master sounds wistful about being too wrapped up running a restaurant and school to wed a well-vetted better half.
Our voyage concludes in Casablanca, where our local driver is named, yes, Mohamed. King Mohammed himself is due to arrive in town shortly to lead the isha adhan, 9 PM prayer, at Hassan II Mosque on the corniche waterfront. Again and again we have heard raves about his travels on the ground through the country among his happy subjects. I read online about his educated, refined wife and the king’s historic efforts, at her behest, to promote opportunity for more women.
One rogue internet story that I find late at night, probably fake news, claims, based on his school days, that the monarch is a closeted gay. If true, he becomes more interesting yet, and after probing the riddles of his country for two weeks, we want to see this man in person, a true ruling king, but time has run out. We must pack for the U.S. departure and leave for the airport when Casablanca Mohamed texts us from the car at 10 o’clock PM.
Morocco is dark and silent as the jet lifts at 1 AM with a shudder of heated metal.
A year has passed, and my pudenda are never part of the story I tell when acquaintances ask about our North Africa adventure. I extol Berber heritage, Islamic architecture, ras el hanout spice blends—the sanitized play-by-play.
But in my head reigns a self-shaming version of my wayfaring. The shame of being the woman with the broken genitals, mincing around the country boiling with infection. If someone told me a man of my acquaintance had a penile illness, I’m sorry, but I’d think of that man for a long time afterward as the guy with the penis problem. It’s natural for impressions to set.
In recollection I am bedeviled by the Bedouin camel caretaker laughing at my incautious dress in the Sahara tent camp. I get online and research the gondoura. It is indeed a lingerie gown meant for the privacy of home. Not for romping in a group by a dancing fire.
How could I not have noticed, before going commando, how sheer the gondoura cloth is? Our driver Hamid, the desert coordinator, and the Rissani shop keeper all knew the dress was underwear. They encouraged me to buy and wear it anyway. I went further and flashed my pubic-shadow like a reckless old woman. Maybe in their wisdom the men were right. Wearing the gondoura led to my recovery. It felt good.
The memory of it does not. Look at me composing a tome about my vagina in Morocco instead of a piece about our many Mohameds or some quixotic excursion reflection. Perhaps Polish scholar Zbigniew Bialas is right when he notes the body’s large role in “destabilizing” a voyager’s writing subject. In the view of Bialas, Jonathan Swift’s famous Lemuel Gulliver exemplifies a traveler whose body is literally always out of proportion against his explored worlds. Unfamous I, on the other hand, exemplify a body whose invisible part, a covered up orifice, in my consciousness loomed out of proportion to the vast spectacle of the foreign country.
Post-trip body shame keeps scratching around my brain. At a concert I attend with my old boo and a couple of married friends, the shame rears its head out loud when the man asks, “How’s your writing going?” He has to holler over the Cambodian psychedelic fuzz tones of the opening band.
“I’m writing a piece about having a fungal infection in Morocco,” I roar back.
“Nonfiction. A riff on a travel journal. You know, being in a Muslim country. Feeling embarrassed and old and not wanting a strange doctor glaring up my crotch.”
“I think I have you beat,” my friend says.
I didn’t realize we were in a competition.
“I’ve had this rash on my backside for half a year,” he reports as the auditorium crowd erupts with claps and hoots at a song’s end. “Even multiple courses of antibiotics couldn’t wipe it out. Last week a new doctor examines it and flips out with excitement. I have a rare condition. He’s never seen it in the flesh, only in books. Some sort of crystalline lesions that are mostly observed on patients in Brazilian jungles. Lord knows how I contracted it. He brings in four doctors and nurses to gape at my butt cheeks and take pictures.”
“Wonderful!” I say, appreciating his anecdote.
I don’t worry about whether his rare malady is on the mend. I assume yes. Regardless, to the throbbing beat of Dengue Fever, my friend turns, for the foreseeable future, into the guy with the wayward ass problem. Into the butt of a medical joke.
And I, giggling and swaying alongside him to the next song, begin reclaiming what some enterprising candida fungi almost stole from me—the dizzying exultation, in all its complexity, of Morocco.
Mindela Ruby is the author of the novel Mosh It Up (2014) and has also published poetry and short prose in journals including Rivet, WomenArts Quarterly, East Bay Review, Frigg, Arcadia, and Foliate Oak. She is a contributor to the new anthology Unmasked. Her poetry has been Pushcart and Best of the Net nominated. She completed a PhD at University of California.
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