Lesvos in the time of refugees

In 2015, when refugees first started streaming into Greece by the thousands, boat after overcrowded boat landing on the shores of Lesvos and a few other islands, I felt the pull to go help. Agencies were calling for volunteers to help keep people safe, and I wondered whether I should go. But I didn’t feel like I could leave my work at the time, which was keeping other people safe. Still, it stayed on my heart and mind for years, as I followed the refugee crisis in the news. Finally, three years later, I found the opportunity to go do the volunteering that had been in the back of my mind since then.

img_9120Mytilene, Lesvos

I flew to Lesvos from Athens on a 50-person propeller plane and landed in Mytilene, the main city on Lesvos.

I took the only bus of the day to the community where I would be volunteering, Skala Sikamineas, a tiny village on the northeastern corner of Lesvos. It is one of the closest parts of the island to Turkey, which is why it is a hotspot for refugee arrivals. It has a lot of fishermen, one mini market, one bakery, a handful of restaurants, and one cafe where both old Greek men and young international volunteers hang out. I stumbled out of the bus and right into this café where I promptly met like-minded volunteers and got my orientation from the volunteer coordinator. My first shift was the next morning.

img_9237Skala Sikamineas – out the window of the volunteer house

I was part of the land crew for an agency called Refugee Rescue, and we had two jobs: one, to watch the sea from above and spot any refugee boats that entered Greek waters, and two, if a boat was spotted, we would open the transit camp where the refugees would stay until they could be transferred to the main refugee camp on Lesvos. We distributed blankets, hot tea, and helped everyone get dry clothes to replace anything that was wet. And we also got to distribute toys for the kids, which was so lovely! (And prior to that, the Hellenic Coast Guard and other official boats would be notified and either they or the Refugee Rescue boat would meet the refugee boat and escort the people safely to shore.)

6b54f417-cc2b-4689-b9fb-77342da607d8Looks pretty but it was FREEZING

Why is this work even necessary? International refugee policy and migration routes are ridiculously complicated and ever-changing subjects, but here’s a simplified summary. When refugees flee their homes in Syria, Afghanistan, or other countries due to unsafe conditions there, many of them aim to resettle in the European Union, where living conditions are better and their families will be safe. They make their way overland from their home nation and end up in Turkey where they try to cross by boat to land in Greece, where they seek asylum.

(The process of seeking asylum is a political request that an individual puts in, saying that the country they have left is unsafe for them, and asking for permission to resettle in a new country. It’s a time-consuming process and not all people who request asylum are granted it.)

Refugee Flow

The distance of sea between Turkey and Lesvos near Skala is fairly short (only five nautical miles), but the journey is dangerous, which is why boat spotting is important. Most refugees cross on dinghies, small boats made of rubber with an engine attached, and most crossings are at night. The dinghies that arrived on Greek shores while I was there contained 35-60 people each.

There were a surprising number of small children on the boats, including a 4-day old baby.

Dinghy(I never personally saw a dinghy in my three weeks, but this photo was taken a few years ago by Boaz Arad from IsraAid. This agency was on Lesvos doing great medical work while I was there.)

Lots of things can go wrong on a journey across the Aegean. Most dinghies take at least an hour and a half to cross, though sometimes it can be faster and sometimes it can take up to 3-4 hours. The engine can stop working on the boat, stranding the people in the middle of the sea. The weather can change, as it did one night that I was working and a boat came into Greek waters during a thunderstorm – it had been calm when they left Turkey but by the time they made it to Greece, they were totally soaked from rain and there was lightning in the sky. The boat can develop a leak and start taking on water, and eventually sink.

And, something sinister I learned while I was there is that though the smugglers who organize the boats provide life jackets (which of course the refugees pay an additional fee for, on top of the huge fees they are already paying for the service of being smuggled – sometimes people’s whole life savings), they are often fake. Fake life jackets look real, but when they get wet, the material inside absorbs water instead of repelling it, and they will end up dragging a person down instead of floating them.

So the danger of attempting a crossing is quite real.

Fake life jackets cut open to reveal the inside

The volunteer work we were doing was important, but it was not glamorous nor fast-paced.

fullsizeoutput_2610Two of my colleagues watching for boats around midnight one night

It meant a lot of nights spent standing out in the cold and wind (yes, Greece is cold in the winter time too), scanning the sea through a night vision camera or binoculars, looking for refugee boats. Most nights, nothing happened. But every night, it was possible that we would see something and so we had to be out there and alert.

img_9219An official boat patrolling the Greek-Turkey border, seen through the night vision camera

We did night shifts that went from 10pm to 7am, which were spent on an exposed promontory which had a good view of a large section of sea. Working in teams of three, we watched the sea throughout the whole night in shifts, each getting a couple of hours to sleep in the car, huddled under blankets, when it wasn’t our shift.

It was highly unpleasant on some nights, trying to keep the [very expensive] camera and your body steady in huge gusts of wind, waiting out rain for hours locked in a soggy car with two other exhausted people, etc. The sea looked pretty unfriendly in the dark, especially when there was no moon and there was wind or rain.

It gave me a lot of time to think about how desperate and scared I would have to be to decide to put myself and my children in a boat in the middle of a frigid, windy night and try to cross that scary sea.

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I took this photo around 3am one night during my shift. I was sitting out at our viewing point, having my 5-minute break between scans. I was thinking about the refugees who were likely hiding in the woods somewhere in Turkey, trying to decide if tonight was the right night to attempt a crossing. I had prepared a thermos of hot tea to bring with me, something to try to keep a bit warm, and when I looked at the little saying on the tag, it just hit me straight in the heart with its relevance to what I was doing.

Indeed, we are one soul, you and me.

Myself, the refugees who are crossing, the people who live in Skala Sikamineas… we’re all the same. We’re all human. We all want the same basic things in life – safety and freedom for ourselves and our families, enough to eat, a roof over our heads, employment that pays enough to live, etc. I happen to have been born in a stable country with no war, to a privileged family, and that puts me in a position to help. These folks on the boats happen to have been born in a country that is unsafe for one reason or another (and I won’t get political, but our government had a lot to do with the reasons that some of these people are fleeing their homes) and that puts them in a position of needing help right now. We were born in different places, but we are one.

Those are my sisters and brothers. We are two sides of the same coin. We are the same.

IMG_9411Lifejacket graveyard

Shortly before I left Lesvos, a few of the other volunteers and I drove a short distance from the spot where we watch for boats to see this ‘lifejacket graveyard,’ an unintentional monument to all the refugees who have passed through Lesvos in the past few years.

The life jacket graveyard is just a pit in the ground, not far from a cute tourist town called Molyvos, where life jackets started collecting, and now there are thousands upon thousands just disintegrating in the elements. There are pieces of dinghies and different flotation devices mixed in, and a bunch of boat motors arranged near one edge like tombstones.

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It was powerful to witness.

When I first got out of the car and took in the magnitude of all those people who left their homes and everything they knew to make this dangerous journey, the hairs on my arms stood straight up and I got goosebumps all over.

One of the other volunteers said, “the feeling I get here is the same feeling as when I visited Auschwitz and saw all the shoes left behind.”

The crisis continues.

The volume of refugees that cross through Lesvos these days is diminished from what it was in 2015 when the crisis began. The European Union is paying Turkey quite a bit of money to try to prevent refugees from crossing into Greece; there is a Frontex patrol boat on the border at most times, as well as a NATO warship patrolling the border, in addition to the Turkish and Greek coast guards. And yet, people continue to cross.

Once they arrive in Greece, they spend months or years trapped in Moria, the main refugee camp. It is like a prison where they must stay until they are either deported back to Turkey or allowed entry onto mainland Greece. (I didn’t visit Moria because I didn’t have any work to do there and I don’t like to treat humans like animals in a zoo to be viewed, but click here for some good photos and reporting on the camp.) Overall, the presence of a huge number of refugees on Lesvos was much less obvious than I thought it would be, because they are all contained in the camp.

But people continue to arrive. I just saw an update from friends who are still there, and they had four boats land in the last 27 hours, with nearly 130 people on board.

There are also boats landing on the Greek islands of Samos and Chios, and a growing number of refugees crossing into Italy from Africa. A huge amount are moving overland to Jordan and effectively resettling there, which is rarely mentioned in the news. And of course there are other refugees and mass migrations across the world.

Most countries don’t want to take in any more refugees, but it’s not safe for them to return to their home countries. And remaining in subhuman conditions in refugee camps is also not a viable solution.

I don’t know what the answer to this huge issue is, but I do know that this work both shook my faith in humanity and renewed it.

The coordinator for the agency I volunteered with posted a picture of a dinghy that arrived on Lesvos one morning and ended her description with the hashtag, #Godisdead.

I can understand why. Bearing witness to the suffering of so many people, the terrible things they encounter that force them to leave their homes, the arduous journey they take, the treatment they receive by some people and authorities along the way, the animal-like conditions in which they exist in Moria camp, and the likelihood that in the end they will be deported anyway…it can make you question why any God would allow this.

But on the other hand, as I got to know the community I was living in, I learned about how the residents of this tiny village reacted when refugees suddenly started showing up on their shores in droves. And that buoyed my spirits and my hope for humanity.

The few hundred people who live in this village were there when the refugees first started arriving, and they rose up to help their fellow humans, doing their best until the international NGOs and other assistance arrived months later. The women cooked and helped care for the children, the local café donated food and drinks, and the fishermen were nominated for a Nobel prize for their work rescuing people from boats in distress. (Here is a beautiful photo collage by the Guardian showing the incredible work of this community.)

It’s so beautiful to know that despite what we see reflected in politics, the basic human impulse is still to help others.

And that is what I’m going to try to keep in my heart from this experience.

Magical Greece

I scheduled in about five days to make the journey between Thessaloniki and Lesvos, so I could see some of the sights that Greece has to offer before heading to my volunteer placement.

img_8996.jpgRock formation at Meteora

My first stop was Meteora, a large rock formation that hosts a bunch of monasteries and nunneries built atop the rocks, which was absolutely incredible.

I spent two nights at a hostel in the town of Kalambaka, just below the rocks, and hiked from there to the various monasteries.

IMG_8682Monastery of the Holy Trinity

The first day, I set out after my arrival to explore what I could before dark. I hiked for an hour or two going up, up, up and eventually came to the above view – the first monastery on top of a huge rock.

I learned that monks have been living a secluded life here since the 11th century, when they started inhabiting caves in these rocks. The monasteries were built a few hundred years later, and at that time, the only way up was to climb a rope ladder that the monks at the top would lower or to be hauled up in a large human net, both of which could break when the ropes got too weak. Talk about a leap of faith.

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Nowadays there are hiking trails and a big paved road that go from Kalambaka to most of the monasteries. Getting to some from the road still requires some climbing of stairs, but most can be accessed easily by car.

I was kind of disappointed to find the proximity of the road when I had hiked all the way up from the back, feeling pretty spiritual about the long journey on foot to discover these holy places that were so remote. Then I rounded a corner and saw a tour bus heading towards me on this nice road and I thought “oh no…”

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But I kept hiking, ignoring the road and the cars passing, and I visited all of the monasteries easily in the two days I had. Walking to each one was definitely the best way to do it for me, though it’s nice the road is there for people who aren’t physically able to do the hike.

IMG_8719St. Stephanos Nunnery behind me

The weather was clear and perfect for hiking – not too hot and not too cold. And because it is the low season for tourism in Greece, there weren’t many other people around, so I could take my time in all the best spots.

IMG_8836Meteora feels like a thin place to me: a place where the space between God and earth is diminished.

Thin places don’t have to be religious places, and honestly, before this trip, the places I experienced as thin were rarely of the religious sort.

I first discovered a thin place in Uganda, in a rural school my study abroad program visited, where hundreds of smiling, uniform-clad children ran around joyously. When I got home, I found another thin place when I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Boston where weary, cold people sat at round tables and encouraged each other over a meager meal. Then I moved to Benin and experienced even more thin places: the dirt road where I would run each morning and see my neighbors heading to their fields as the dew glistened on the crops growing next to the road; a tiny mud church with a straw roof in the middle of nowhere where we stopped to vaccinate the children against polio one day on our way to another village. Then of course I discovered the Sahara Desert in Morocco, a magnificent and sweeping thin place.

And in Meteora, I swear I could feel the presence of the monks and nuns at each monastery/nunnery. It was like a kind, loving spirit in the air and it was beautiful. I am so glad I visited this place.

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When it came time to leave Kalambaka to go to Delphi, there were only two options for the train – either 5:30am or 5:30pm. And because the train didn’t go directly to Delphi but rather to Livadia nearby, where I would have to get a bus to Delphi, I figured the sensible option was to take the morning train, though I am NOT a 5:30am kind of person. I avoid that time of day if at all possible.

The 5:30am train turned out to be the most magical transportation experience of my life.

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The first hour was in the dark, and then we had to transfer and wait in the cold for a while for the next train as the sun rose. I fell asleep almost immediately upon boarding the second train, and when I awoke, we were high up in the most gorgeous mountains, bathed in a beautiful early morning light.

My face was glued to the window as I took in the blanket of dark green that covered the mountainside, and the sun peeking over one mountain and illuminating the snow-capped peaks of the others. There were wispy clouds suspended in midair, tinted red and yellow by the sun, standing out brilliantly against the bright blue sky. Below, groups of sheep and goats huddled under tin-roofed structures on the mountainside.

Each time we passed through a tunnel, there would be a new valley, or a new perspective on the same valley. There were farmlands in a checkerboard pattern, bright green squares next to dark brown, with villages nestled into the corners and small orchards dotting the plains.

A flock of birds glided around in the open air of the valley and then soared under one of the metal bridges the train had just gone over.

It was truly magical. I tried to take several pictures, but each time, all that came out was my own reflection in the train window. I guess it was destined to be a memory that I have to keep in my mind, not on camera.

IMG_8666Out another train window

Once I got to Livadia, I was so thankful that I chose the early train, because the bus to Delphi proved to be elusive. This particular bus does not depart from the bus station, for some reason, but from an unmarked bus stop near the edge of town. It took me more than two hours of traipsing back and forth across the town carrying my bag and asking random Greek people if they knew where the bus to Delphi was before I finally found the bus stop.

Then there were another two hours of waiting while bus after bus came by, none of them apparently going to Delphi. But when I finally boarded the correct bus, it only took about 45 minutes to drive partway up Mt. Parnassus to the town.

IMG_9052The town of Delphi from above at sunset

Delphi was another incredible place. Full of history and ancient ruins, being there was a powerful reminder of so much humanity that has preceded us. Delphi is most famous for being home to the Pythia, the high priestess at the Temple of Apollo, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. People would come from all over to consult with her, and her counsel probably influenced some major decisions that changed the course of history.

IMG_9034Temple of Athena at Delphi

Though I usually enjoy missing out on the crowds and spending less money by visiting places in the off season, I think Delphi may have been the exception to that rule. It was so quiet and deserted that it was almost spooky. I could walk through most of the town without seeing another person or hearing sounds of life anywhere. I ate dinner in empty restaurants both nights I was there, and though the food (and the service) was amazing, it was a bit disconcerting.

Incidentally, I learned that the Oracle of Delphi was never available for consultation in the wintertime, so apparently Delphi is just a place that is meant to be visited in warmer weather. Good to know!

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Some of the sites were also not open to visit while I was there because it was the off-season, like the gymnasium, pictured above. Considering that I was pretty sore and tired from all the hiking I did in Meteora, it didn’t bother me too much to miss out on more walking, but I didn’t realize before I arrived that I wouldn’t have the option to visit all the sites.

Still, I feel like I was able to experience the meaning of the place and definitely able to see its magnificent beauty.

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Thessaloniki

I arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece’s 2nd largest city, in early January. My arrival coincided with the Greek Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 6, which marks the end of the Christmas season. This meant that I got to celebrate Christmas yet again on my first day here!

IMG_8314Coffee cup on January 6

By chance, on my first morning, I stumbled upon the Orthodox Christmas tradition of a bunch men in Speedos diving into ice cold water to retrieve a crucifix that has been blessed by a priest. The man who gets the cross is supposed to have good luck for the coming year.

It was quite the event, judging by the number of people who crowded along the waterfront to watch.

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The young men boarded a big ship, took lots of selfies of themselves as they prepared to dive, and a fleet of small rescue boats floated nearby, with medics and lifeguards ready to jump in if needed. Some of the elite of Thessaloniki watched from a yacht near the coast.

There was almost an hour of buildup and the action was over in about a minute. One minute they were on the boat, then very suddenly all the men were flailing about in the water. Just as suddenly, someone got the cross and everyone was clambering back on to the boats.

After the swimming event, the priest gave a blessing in the street and then there was a small parade as he made his way to a nearby church, escorted by the Greek military. The giant bells on the church were clanging and Greek women were shoving to get a chance to kiss the cross that the priest had blessed and I let myself get swept along with the crowd and absorb their joy.

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It was a wonderful first day and after my Greek Epiphany experience, I wandered around, trying to get a feel for this new place.

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Whereas Tirana felt like it was on its way up as a city, Thessaloniki definitely feels like it had its glory days already and is in a decline. It’s a beautiful city, in the way that old things are beautiful, and also in the way that discord and honesty has beauty. The people are very welcoming and friendly, but you can see that Greece’s economic crisis has impacted them greatly.

IMG_8600All over the city, there are high-end shops with prices marked way down

The city is built on a steep hill, with the remnants of an ancient Byzantine wall at the top and layers of houses and apartments cascading downwards. At the bottom of the hill is the Aegean Sea and the city’s most famous monument, the White Tower.

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Interestingly, the city is covered in graffiti. And I don’t say “covered” lightly. Truly, most buildings are marked in some way Even in the most upscale part of town, you see this street artwork.

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Everywhere in the city, you see ancient ruins and historically significant items. In fact, the government has been trying to build a metro system for more than 10 years (right now the public transit in the city is limited to buses), but each time they try to dig for it, they uncover more ruins. One Greek woman from Athens who stayed in our hostel said that when someone suggests something you never want to do, it has become a running joke to say,

“Oh yes, we’ll do that as soon as Thessaloniki gets its metro.”

IMG_8468One such site below the city, glimpsed through a wire fence

My favorite part of Thessaloniki is the waterfront.

This has been recently upgraded and features broad sidewalks bordering the water with places to sit and some modern sculptures alongside the ancient ones. The local people use this space a lot, and on weekends and evenings the area is full of Greek people out enjoying the water and vendors selling koulouria (a thin, bagel-type item covered in sesame seeds) and other pastries.

It is also a great place for running, and I got back into a solid running routine here. This was good and necessary to offset my other Thessaloniki pastime, which was sampling the baklava from a different bakery every day!

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But the most meaningful part of my stay in Thessaloniki was that I had the opportunity to facilitate an English-learning conversation course for a group of men who are political refugees from Turkey. It was an honor to get to work with them.

It hasn’t been in the news as often lately, but Greece is still the landing point for hundreds of thousands of refugees each year.

There are many people living here who are seeking asylum – a legal status that will allow them to resettle in a new country because it is unsafe for them to return to their home country.

The group I worked with already had a pretty high English level, so we mostly practiced conversation – the most difficult part of learning any language. I taught them some idioms in English, like about the silver lining to a cloud and about crossing a bridge when you come to it (which it turns out, there is a similar idiom in Turkish – basically, don’t roll up your pants to cross the river before you get to the water). I also got to help with a women’s group that my friend facilitates and met some lovely women that way, two of whom graciously invited me to dinner at their houses even though they are refugees and new to the country.

IMG_8590I can’t tell you how amazing it was to eat home-cooked food after so many months on the road, eating out or eating cereal all the time!

I think we often want to think of people who are in a position of needing help as somehow fundamentally different from “us.” It’s an unconscious tendency to distance oneself, partly to protect ourselves from the idea of “that could be me.”

The thing that was so humbling working with these folks is that they are exactly like the people I know in the United States.

They are educated, they are informed, they are concerned about the world and their place in it. They are people who had high-level careers in Turkey, as educators and academics and engineers. Then suddenly their government turned against them because of their political beliefs, and their passports and assets were frozen, their jobs dismissed, and some were imprisoned. They had to flee for the safety of their families and now have to start all over again in this new country.

As I got to know them, I kept thinking, “wow, this could be me if I was born in a different country.” It’s just that America, despite its [many] shortcomings, is still based on freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom of the press; this all means that we cannot be punished for our political beliefs like these people were. The things we take for granted…

In my last week in Thessaloniki, I also connected with a large refugee assistance agency called Help Refugees. They are a British organization that acts as an umbrella, assisting lots of different agencies who work with refugees with funding and volunteers. It was a very informative experience, and I learned a lot. (Like, for instance, there are about 10,000 refugees currently in northern Greece, about half of whom are still in camps and half of whom have moved into housing.)

IMG_8593Map of all the refugee camps in Northern Greece

The work I did was remarkably similar to what I used to coordinate in my former job at HOPE, and it was fun and different to be on the other side – not coordinating but doing the small tasks that it takes to keep an organization like that running.

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I spent a day helping in the giant Help Refugees warehouse, which receives donations from all over and provides supplies to more than 20 refugee camps and refugee centers in the area, and several days helping in the Soul Food kitchen, which is a low-budget operation that prepares lunch and dinner for hundreds of refugees each day. Some of the food is distributed through a community center and some of it is packaged for an outreach service that reminded me so much of HOPE outreach.

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These experiences were so fulfilling (even though my hands smelled like onions for days after chopping pounds and pounds of them!).

This also reminded me that I wanted to volunteer on one of the Greek islands during this trip, to help with the new refugees who are just arriving on boats. So I went online and sent in an application to volunteer on Lesvos with an agency called Refugee Rescue, and I was accepted to help on their land crew for a few weeks. So I am starting that work this weekend – will certainly keep you updated on that experience!

The journey to Greece

So I was in a café in Tirana, Albania and I had decided I wanted to go to Greece.

IMG_8272Albanian café

I pulled out my phone and asked the nice Albanian barista who spoke no English to connect me to the WiFi. I looked at my maps app and saw there was a town in Macedonia called Ohrid that looked like it was on the way to Greece from Tirana. A quick google search on Ohrid turned up some gorgeous pictures and reviews from other travelers saying that it was a pleasant place to visit. They said you could get there from Tirana easily, and it looked simple enough to get to Thessaloniki after that. Done. I walked to the bus station and bought a ticket for the next day.

The bus ride through the rural parts of Albania was a little more like what I expected from Albania. it was a dreary day, not exactly raining, but misting as we traversed dark tunnels through the small Albanian mountains and passed by small, crumbling houses in poor rural communities. I definitely had a case of what my friend Rachel calls “bus depression” – the unmoored, melancholy feeling you can have when leaving one place and heading to a new one on a bus.

The border crossing into Macedonia was much more intense than the one into Albania.

First of all, the border is basically on top of a mountain, so it was snow-covered and freezing and felt quite dramatic. We drove through a customs booth where they collected our passports. Then the bus pulled into this large concrete structure that was like a mix of a giant garage and a mechanic’s bay.

We were instructed to get off the bus, collect our bags from the storage area and form a line. Then a very stern Macedonian customs official went from person to person, asking us to open our bags so he could inspect the contents. Eventually everyone got back on the bus and we continued on into Macedonia.

IMG_8301Ohrid, Macedonia

Ohrid is not far from the border and is quite beautiful, with the feel of a small town that attracts huge numbers of tourists in the summer. There are many cobblestone streets and cute little shops and restaurants. It borders a giant lake and is surrounded by mountains, which creates a very striking image.

IMG_8303Local beer for one at a restaurant in Ohrid

I took myself to dinner at a restaurant on the lake, which was gorgeous and actually quite reasonably priced. It did get a bit chilly — it had snowed that morning and though it had melted by the afternoon, it still wasn’t warm. The waitress kept asking me if I wanted to go inside, but the view was so beautiful that I declined, saying I wasn’t cold. She must have known I was lying, because she brought me a blanket a few minutes later.

IMG_8307Sunset in Ohrid

Unfortunately the hostel I stayed at was awful: the owner was out of town and the friend he had asked to watch over things while he was gone seemed to wish that he was somewhere else as well. When I first arrived, I actually thought it was closed, because it took about 5 minutes of ringing the bell and waiting and my taxi driver pounding on the door before someone answered. Only one room was heated and it wasn’t the one that had the beds in it. I spent an unpleasant night there and decided it was time to move on.

I had done a bit of research on how I could get to Greece from there but I’ve found that usually asking the hostel staff is the best method for gaining up-to-date information. So when the guy working there told me, “oh yes, no problem, you can get to Thessaloniki from here easily. Just take a shared taxi to Bitola, then there are buses every hour from there to Thessaloniki,” I set off to follow his instructions. He said it should cost about 15 euros (about $20) for the whole trip.

A few hours later, I found myself standing in a deserted bus station in Bitola, being told that there were no buses from there to Greece.

Seriously?? What a nightmare.

“You can go to Skopje (the capital of Macedonia, a few hours north), and then go from there to Greece,” the woman working at the desk told me.

Back outside, the driver of the shared taxi I took from Ohrid said he would take me to the border and then I could get another ride from there to Thessaloniki. I didn’t like that idea too much, imagining myself standing on top of that mountain where the border with Albania was, trying to talk my way into a passing bus or taxi. And would there be any passing? I didn’t know, and wasn’t in the mood to trust another stranger about travel advice.

The taxi drivers from that town were also vying for my business. They said one of them could take me to Phlorinas, a transportation hub in northern Greece, from which there were definitely buses to Thessaloniki. However, they said the price would be 30 euros, on top of which I would have to pay for a bus afterwards.

It doesn’t sound like a ton of money, but the way I am able to travel for such a long time on a limited budget is by keeping my costs very low – staying at the cheapest hostels, flying on budget airlines, buying groceries instead of eating out all the time, walking instead of taking buses or taxis, etc. This trip was threatening to completely blow my transit budget for no good reason.

I wasn’t sure I even had enough cash on me. I was stressed and angry.

I explained to the taxi drivers what I had been told about buses to Thessaloniki and the price and they just laughed.

“That’s completely not true,” they said. “That person had no idea what they were talking about.”

Excellent.

I stood there, staring at the empty bus station and at the taxi drivers and the lack of other travelers who could possibly be going in my direction and want to share a taxi, wondering what to do.

I think the drivers were a bit perplexed with me. We didn’t have much language in common – one spoke some English, another some French, and the others just Macedonian or Greek.

But they made small talk, trying to put me at ease, and asked where I was from. When I said I was from the US, a fatherly gentleman said he had a daughter about my age that lived in the US, in Colorado! I asked where, and he showed me an address in Aurora, just a few minutes from where I was living last year in south Denver. Bizarre coincidence.

For some reason that made me feel a little better and I also realized that I had very little choice. It was already mid-afternoon and if I went to Skopje, I would spend nearly the same money and wouldn’t get to Greece until nighttime. I always try to avoid arriving in a new city late at night, especially when I’m by myself. So I agreed to let the fatherly man drive me to Phlorinas.

We chatted in halting English the surprisingly short distance to Phlorinas and he walked me into the bus station and made sure I got a (surprisingly expensive) ticket to Thessaloniki before he left. Nice guy, and I never would have met him if my plan had gone the way I thought it would.

Sitting on the bus, I was dismayed at how much of my money I had parted with that day, but as I wrote in my journal that evening, “even with everything that went wrong, I still made it here, and it was okay.”

It was a good travel lesson – even when nothing goes right, things usually still work out if you can just remain calm and go with the flow. I’m a person who likes to have a plan, so this is not always easy for me (OK, it’s never easy for me), but it’s true. Flexibility is essential in travel, and I’m trying to embrace it more.

And Thessaloniki turned out to be a lovely place, where I stayed for a month. More on that in the next post… For now, here’s a picture of the Aegean Sea from Thessaloniki.

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Europe during the holidays

When we began this trip, I told anyone who asked that Daniel and I would probably spend Christmas on a beach in Senegal. It sounded so nice and warm, and I figured that as long as we weren’t going to be at home, we could be somewhere with nice weather.

However, by the time December rolled around, Daniel had convinced me that we should spend Christmas in Budapest.

He has friends there who could provide us with free accommodation, and it would be Christmasy, he said! (Also, it turned out, he had plans to meet up there with an Italian woman he had met in Morocco. Aha!) Our plans were flexible and we hadn’t yet bought tickets anywhere else, so I figured we could do a quick layover in Europe if it was so important to him.

On December 23, I boarded a flight from Agadir, Morocco to Budapest for my first European adventure.

I was dreading the cold.

Since I had packed for an African trip, I feared that I was not equipped for a European winter. But when I landed, Daniel was waiting with a giant coat he had bought me for 1 euro at a thrift store.

IMG_8205Exhibit A: Giant coat. Not at the height of fashion, but quite warm;)

Daniel said he had experienced some culture shock leaving Morocco and ending up in Hungary. In contrast, I could literally feel a positive difference in my body on my first day in Hungary. I was so relieved to be somewhere where my gender was not a strike against me that it felt like a physical weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I was surprised how at home I felt in Europe, considering I had never before been to Europe.

And I was enchanted by all the Christmas decorations, lights, and general holiday spirit in the air — a definite change from Morocco, which as a Muslim country had no Christmas spirit.

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I love Christmastime; I think the magic of the holiday season is real and beautiful. I still have palpable memories of cold Christmas Eves from my childhood, looking up at the sky, past the lights twinkling on our house, with absolute wonder and sheer joy that Santa was flying around with his reindeer up there. I still feel that wonder and joy around Christmas, albeit for different reasons.

The next day, Daniel and I went to an outdoor Christmas market, where we drank mulled wine (kind of like apple cider but with wine instead of apples), listened to Christmas music playing over the speaker system and watched a unique light show on the side of a large church. Christmas markets are apparently tradition in a lot of Europe. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, they will appear in communal areas, groups of tents selling gifts, food, and of course, the mulled wine. Germany is rumored to have the best Christmas markets, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Hungarian ones that we sampled.

IMG_8161Budapest is just a festive-looking city

On Christmas Day, we took the train to a small town in the Hungarian countryside to meet up with Daniel’s friends, Shawn and Dóra. Shawn is American; Daniel knows him from college, and Dóra is Hungarian. Her family graciously invited us to stay with them and to join them for their Christmas meal, an amazing spread of traditional Hungarian food. We spent a couple of nights at her parents’ house and then took the train back through the gorgeous countryside to Budapest.

IMG_8133At the train station

We enjoyed a week in Budapest, kitten-sitting for Shawn and Dóra.

Budapest is a lovely, laid-back city, split down the middle by the Danube River and beautiful bridges that connect the two halves of the city (one side is Buda, the other side is Pest). The architecture is old and calls up images of history, but overall it has the feel of a young person’s city, with abandoned factories being turned into hip bars and cafés and the whole city deserted around the holidays as the city-dwellers return to their family homes in the countryside.

IMG_8189Abandoned building turned hip bar

Just before the end of the year, Daniel and I split ways again.

He wanted to stay in Budapest for New Year’s to celebrate with his friends at a giant party in the city, but I didn’t particularly care where I spent new year’s and was aghast at how expensive accommodations were in Budapest during the holiday. I realized I could literally fly to another city, spend a few nights there, and fly back for less than the price of a hostel during New Years in Budapest. So that’s what I decided to do.

I flew to Podgorica, Montenegro for a ridiculously low price (something like $20) and spent New Years there.

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I knew nothing about Montenegro prior to going, but I discovered that it is a beautiful country. It used to be part of Yugoslavia and a major tourist destination, and then when that country broke into several smaller countries, the war that ensued scared away all the European tourists who used to visit Montenegro, though there was no bloodshed in that area. I only spent a few days in Podgorica, but I enjoyed beautiful nature, great food, cheap beer, and affordable prices overall.

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The New Years celebration was one of the better new year’s that I have had in my life. There was a whole day of festivities in the city square, leading up to a famous Croatian singer – Tony Cetinski – performing as the clock struck midnight. I went to the concert with some people from the hostel and had an amazing time. The music was good, though I couldn’t understand the lyrics, and people were setting off fireworks throughout the crowd, so they were exploding directly above us. It was thrilling and fun, if a tad dangerous.

IMG_8254This is not a great picture of the concert but you get the idea

After New Years, I took a bus a few hours to Tirana, the capital of Albania.

I couldn’t believe how easy and orderly the border crossing was, as the last time I crossed a border in a bus was the Kenya-Uganda border, which was a free for all where everyone had to get off the bus, make a mad dash for the customs forms, talk to the border agent, get their passport stamped, and then find the bus and get back on. I remember being terrified that the bus was going to leave me behind and I believe it was a valid fear. In contrast, at the Albanian border, a customs agent boarded the bus, collected all the passports one at a time, and then returned them after they had been verified. (To my disappointment, though, they didn’t stamp my passport. Apparently you only get a stamp if you enter Albania by plane.)

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I don’t know what I expected from Albania – I guess somewhere kind of scary and dark and depressing – maybe because, as my friend Joel pointed out, in the Harry Potter books, Voldemort goes into hiding in Albania after failing to kill Harry. The kind of place where a dark lord can hide must surely be a little seedy, right?

IMG_8275What is less seedy than a hipster rabbit on a utility box?

But Tirana is a colorful, vibrant city that feels like it is up and coming. It was not at all what I was expecting, and I thoroughly enjoyed my two days there. I got to experience another Christmas market there, with a giant Christmas tree and a carnival for kids and lots of little tents selling food and drinks.

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Albania is famous for its café culture, where people sit and chat for hours, so of course I had to sample that. I also walked around a huge swath of the city, enjoyed nature in the Albanian Central Park, and tasted some delicious Albanian baked goods. There are a lot of relics from the communist era (a tough 50ish years of “Stalinst-style” governance, as Wikipedia describes it, which ended in 1992) in Tirana, and Albanians seem to value these as reminders of a time that they want to be sure not to repeat. I toured an old bunker, which has been turned into a museum full of cautionary tales of a government that spied on its people and disappeared many, and I climbed this deteriorating pyramid, met some teenage Albanian boys doing an elaborate photo shoot on top, and then slid down like a giant slide.

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By this time, Daniel had told me that he was not going to be able to continue the trip with me. Instead, he was headed to Italy to chase love. I was a bit disappointed, of course, but I also told him that I supported his decision. You only encounter love so many times in this life, and you need to know when to follow it.

So then I was on my own and could decide to do anything I wanted. What freedom.

I decided what I really wanted to do was make my way to Greece and get my bearings before continuing with the trip as planned. My grandfather is Greek and throughout my life, I have heard him talk about our heritage and the amazing country that Greece is, and I have always wanted to visit. So, while sitting in an Albanian café, I hatched a plan to travel to Macedonia and then continue on to Greece.

That trip was a bit of a saga so I will tell you about it in the next post! This one is long enough. Macedonia was gorgeous, though. More about that next time!

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2017 in photos

Wow, 2018…a new year is on its way. Well on its way by now, mid-January, when I am finally getting around to finishing this post.

As I write this, I am in Thessaloniki, Greece, making plans for the coming year. Where will it take me and what will I be doing? (Next post will explain how I ended up in Greece, when you last heard from me in Morocco!)

Something about looking out at the next year and wondering what it will bring makes me think back on the year that just passed, of all the people and places that comprised it, and all the things that were done and left undone. Here is the recap in photos.

JANUARY

IMG_5718 A work-oriented month, with lots of time spent at the shelter and doing street outreach with our clients.

IMG_5586  I attended a women’s march on Denver with my godparents and my roommate, Joel, who took this picture. It was a beautiful convergence of energy and a reminder of my college days, where marches and rallies were commonplace for me.

FEBRUARY

IMG_5645  I got to celebrate great news with one of my best friends. We’ve been friends since 4th grade and now she’s engaged! So happy for her:)

 

MARCH

IMG_5750My 28th birthday came on the heels of me finding out that I had been accepted into graduate school. March was a good month of celebrating both things with the lovely people in my life:)

IMG_5802They surprised me at work during a staff meeting – one candle for birthday and one for getting into Columbia:)

APRIL

IMG_5821IMG_5822IMG_6026IMG_5902     A month of house sitting. I spent various amounts of time with these furry friends:)

MAY

IMG_6078         My stepbrother graduated from Longmont High (somehow didn’t get a picture of him – just my mom and stepdad at the graduation!)

IMG_6100 It was a tough year at work – we lost several clients and I ran my best Bolder Boulder 10K ever in memory of one man in particular who passed away just before the race and all the homeless veterans in our community.

JUNE

IMG_6657We celebrated my dad’s 60th birthday (and did some fun family activities such as building a bird house from a kit we found in my old bedroom).

fullsizeoutput_2411Then the other part of my family flew to Boston to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday and I got to see some family I hadn’t seen in a long time.

JULY

IMG_6224 I left my job at HOPE after more than three amazing years. A hugely bittersweet time. I was so overwhelmed and encouraged by the goodbye wishes I got from my coworkers, our volunteers, and our clients.

img_63131.jpgAfter leaving HOPE, I spent a lot of the summer on Long Island in New York, playing Scrabble with my grandmother and going to the beach while Daniel and I prepared for our trip.

AUGUST

IMG_6460Spent some lovely weekends in Manhattan with my grandfather, attempting to take selfies and prepping for my move to the city in 2018

IMG_6584Visited Niagara Falls for the first time with friends from Peace Corps and took silly poncho pictures!

SEPTEMBER

IMG_6674We celebrated my grandmother’s 100th birthday at her assisted living facility in Pueblo, Colorado. It was a big year for birthdays in my family!

fullsizeoutput_241b.jpeg Enjoyed a weekend with friends from high school in the small mountain town of La Veta, Colorado. We hiked, made s’mores, looked at a a mass expanse of stars at night…it was lovely.

OCTOBER

IMG_6886Daniel and I explored Morocco.

IMG_7567Spent a lot of time with the color blue in Chefchaouen.

IMG_7173Made new friends and cooked a lot of tasty tagines.

NOVEMBER

IMG_7610We made a Thanksgiving feast in a tiny hostel kitchen for an international family!

IMG_4109Discovered the Sahara desert:)

DECEMBER

IMG_7930I spent most of December by the ocean  – in Essaouira and in Dakhla.

IMG_8184Then Daniel and I met back up in Budapest, Hungary, where we spent Christmas with some friends of his who live there.

IMG_8254On December 31, I ended up in Podgorica, the capital of the small, former Yugoslavian country of Montenegro. I had a great New Year’s attending an outdoor concert in the city square. More about that in the next post!

What a year. Thank you to everyone who made it so wonderful… Here’s hoping 2018 is another good one:)

Best belated new year’s wishes to you all!

Exploring Western Sahara

When Daniel and I first started planning this trip, we thought we would spend a while in Morocco and then travel overland south through Western Sahara and Mauritania to Senegal, then continue down the west coast of Africa. Once we researched this more, we found that traveling through Mauritania was not safe enough for us to be comfortable trying it (the State Department website said “the chance of kidnapping is high in Mauritania” — no thank you!). So we lingered in Morocco and our plan started to unravel. Daniel and I split ways and when we talked about our next steps, we never seemed to be able to arrive at a mutual decision.

“I think we’re being called in different directions,” he said over the phone. He was right. He was feeling the pull of Europe, whereas Western Sahara was calling to me.

Western Sahara is the disputed territory that lies south of Morocco (or IS the southern part of Morocco, if you are talking to a Moroccan).

WesternSahara(On Moroccan maps, there is no border at the green area – it is all Morocco)

Western Sahara is a sparsely populated desert territory. About 567,000 people live in the country, whose area is roughly equivalent to the state of Florida (a state which is home to over 20 million people). Western Sahara has excellent fishing waters and an important share of the world’s phosphate, which is a vital ingredient in fertilizer.

To make a very long story extremely short, Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975 when Spain ceded control of the territory to Morocco. However, the people who live in Western Sahara, the Sahrawi, didn’t want to be part of Morocco and had founded an independence movement called the Polisario Front a few years earlier. This group rose up to fight for Western Sahara’s independence, an armed struggle that lasted for 15 years. When there was eventually a peace agreement in 1991, part of the agreement was that there would be a referendum where Western Saharans could vote for independence the next year. Now, in 2018, that referendum has still not happened.

So Western Sahara remains a disputed territory, almost completely under Moroccan control, but with the Polisario still active and controlling some territory on the eastern border of the country. A lot of the original population is currently living in refugee camps in Algeria.

There is little information available about life in Western Sahara, because the Moroccan government does not allow journalists to enter the territory. (Morocco is actually oddly suspicious about journalists in general – when I worked at the hostel in Chefchaouen, we had to send the check-in sheets from every guest that stayed at the hostel to the police, and they would often call to check up on the journalists who stayed with us.)

This all made me curious to see for myself what was going on in Western Sahara. I did a lot of research and talked to other travelers who had been through the territory, and everything I learned said it was quite safe to travel along the coast of Western Sahara as long as one was not a journalist.

Several other travelers were interested in going with me, but they were ultimately dissuaded by the fact that it is an EXTREMELY LONG JOURNEY to get to the major cities in Western Sahara, from even the most southern cities in Morocco. And there is not much in between:

IMG_8140This part of the Sahara looks kind of reminiscent of Star Wars to me

It took me 24 hours on the bus from Essaouira to get to Dahkla, which is a coastal city in the southern part of Western Sahara.

They have a big kite surfing industry there and some very nice beaches, which is why I chose Dahkla instead of another city. Funnily enough, the beaches turned out to be quite far (25 kilometers) from the city itself, where I was staying and there wasn’t public transit there, so I never ended up going! There are a bunch of tourist resorts right in the beach area, but they are extremely expensive and that was simply not in my budget.

I couldn’t find any hostels in the city, so I stayed in a hotel where I got a private room for only $10 a night. It was actually a much-needed break from hostel life and living with 20-30 other people in close quarters. The hotel was clean and quiet and the staff were absolutely lovely. And it was two blocks from the water, though this part of the coast isn’t a sandy beach.

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The  bus journey there was one of the most interesting parts of the trip. I left Essaouira in the mid-afternoon and caught another bus from Agadir that evening, which would take me all the way to Dakhla.

The first twelve hours or so were uneventful, just a bus ride through a dark night. I did see the sun rise over the Sahara, which was pretty incredible.

Then around 7am, we passed a military checkpoint and I woke up to a police officer standing over me, asking for my passport.

It was a startling way to awaken, but I expected passport checks from what I had read online and heard from other travelers so I wasn’t surprised. I gave him my passport and he got off the bus with it. A few minutes later, he came back and asked me to please come with him to answer a few questions. Yikes.

I grabbed my purse and followed him, unsure whether I would be getting back on this bus, and hoping that my bag wouldn’t be going to Dakhla without me. He led me to the side of the road to a tiny concrete shack where another police officer was waiting inside. There was one table in the room, with one chair and no windows. They left the door open, though, and we had a simple conversation.

They asked me where I was going (Dakhla), what my profession was in the US (I’m a student), why I wanted to go to Dakhla (I want to go to the beach), if I knew people in Dakhla (this one, I didn’t know what answer they were looking for, but I think the correct answer was no. It was also the true answer, so that’s what I said). I smiled at them and kept the tone light. They made a phone call and reported my answers, and then they gave me my passport back and said to enjoy Dakhla.

IMG_7905Desert city on the road to Dakhla

We stopped at probably at least 8-10 more checkpoints before we arrived in Dakhla. My passport was checked four more times, and each time the officer asked me what my profession was, but I never had to get off the bus again. Interestingly, I also never had to pay a bribe, though I was not sure if the bus driver gave them a little something as he was handing them his papers.

Along the highway through Western Sahara, I mostly just saw desert on one side and ocean on the other side. There were a few herds of wild camels, which was a pretty exciting sight to see. A lot of the road is under construction, part of the infrastructure development the Moroccan government is funding in Western Sahara. There are also quite a few unexploded land mines visible from the highway – though they have cleared all those that were dangerously close to the road. These land mines are marked by towers of rocks and I spotted a startling amount of these towers from my window as our bus sped by. Remnants of war…very sobering to see.

IMG_8295Daily life in Dahkla

After all this, once I arrived in Dakhla, I was surprised by how normal life in this city was.

In this pastel-colored city rising out of the desert with its square, masculine buildings and wide roads, people went about their daily lives. They were buying things at the market, fishing in the ocean, drinking coffee at cafés, and walking along the coast with their families on the weekends and evenings. I found some excellent street food, a good breakfast place, and lots of friendly people.

There were some indicators of the ongoing conflict, but you might have missed them if you weren’t paying attention. The main thing was that the Moroccan flag was EVERYWHERE. I saw so many more flags in Dakhla than in any other Moroccan city. There was also a very visible police, army, and navy presence in the city. There were several large military bases in visible and strategic places throughout the city, and I saw many uniformed men walking around. I also met a lot of off-duty military folks out and about in the city.

The other interesting thing was that 9 out of 10 people that I met were not originally from Western Sahara; most were from other places in Morocco. The Moroccan government has been encouraging settlers to move to Western Sahara so they can cement their power in the region, and it seems to have been very effective.

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I did meet a few Sahrawi people. One night, I somehow ended up having coffee with a Libyan business man, a Malian truck driver, and a Moroccan shop keeper. We were sitting outside at a table along the road at a café and the Libyan guy called out to someone walking by that he knew; this guy turned out to be a member of the Polisario. He spoke excellent English and he gave me an thorough education about the conflict.

He told me about the excellent fishing waters and valuable minerals that Western Sahara has, and about how that was one of the reasons that Morocco so desperately wanted to maintain control of the region. Other Sahrawis talked about this frequently.

He told me that they will keep fighting for independence until they get it.

Mr. Polisario welcomed me, the Libyan, and the Malian as guests in his country, but said he did not feel the same about the Moroccan man, because he was an occupier. The two were good natured with each other – they obviously had met before this day – but Mr. Polisario was very clear about the way he felt. He had the fast-talking air of one of those people who is constantly busy, always on his way somewhere, and after he felt he had sufficiently educated me about the conflict (and offered to buy my coffee as a welcome to his country), he ran off to his next commitment.

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Another day, I met an older Sahrawi gentleman at a shop where I was buying water. He was overjoyed when he learned that I was American. He insisted that I join him and his grandson for tea. He said that he remembered a time in the 70s when there was a drought in the region and USAID helped by delivering food aid to the people.

Though more than 40 years has passed, that memory still colored his opinion of the United States and Americans.

We should remember this at a time when our government is considering cutting a lot of foreign aid programs. These things, which cost little in the grand scheme of governmental spending, can make such a difference in the way people view our country.

He also told me about the conflict with Morocco, but he was more resigned to the state of things in his country. Tellingly, he was nervous to talk to me about this in front of other people because he feared police surveillance.

My visit to Western Sahara definitely added a dimension to my Morocco experience and my understanding of the place and global politics in general. After meeting the people who live here, I’ll be following the news about this region and watching to see if they ever get their independence.

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