City in India

How To Deal With The Culture Shock Of Big Cities

Derek Travel Tips & Advice 46 Comments

City in India
Arriving in a new country, especially if it’s your first time traveling, is almost guaranteed to be an intimidating experiencing. This is even more so the case if you’re starting off in a mega-city such as Bangkok, Mexico City, Delhi or Sao Paolo, among many others.

It’s one thing to ‘force’ yourself to get on that plane, often times alone, to head off to unfamiliar lands. But it’s another thing to suddenly find yourself in the midst of a chaotic, intense and shockingly overwhelming city only minutes after your flight arrives.

No wonder so many travelers are not particularly fond of the world’s largest metropolises! It makes perfect sense when our experiences in these massive cities tend to be of the ‘holy crap, this is crazy, get me out of here!’ sort, especially when our flight arrives at 2am, we don’t have a hotel room booked and we don’t speak the local language at all.

TERRIFIED EARL IN BANGKOK

On my first independent backpacking trip, I remember all too well the 2am taxi ride from the Don Mueang International Airport to the Khao San Road area of Bangkok, where I immediately stepped right into the middle of what naturally appeared as a scene of indescribable insanity to my poorly traveled self at the time. The culture shock was instant and harsh and I found myself standing on the side of the road and on the verge of tears. I desperately wanted to hide in a hotel room but I had no idea how to go about finding one.

Tuk-tuks buzzed by me. Bar and restaurant staff yelled out to me. Vendors aggressively tried to sell me t-shirts and fake Ids. It was noisy, crowded, dirty and I was miserable.

Eventually, I walked into the first budget hotel I saw, paid the ridiculously inflated price they wanted to charge me and ran straight up to my room. And then I stayed right there in that room for 24 hours straight, staring out the window, too afraid to step foot outside once again.

I hated Bangkok. I really hated Bangkok. In fact, I wasn’t so fond of Thailand in general either.

And yes, I understand how crazy of a statement that is considering that I had been in Thailand for only one day and had really only seen one street in Bangkok…from behind a window.

But often times, that’s what happens when travelers arrive in such foreign destinations for the very first time.

AN ALTERNATIVE: GET OUT QUICKLY!

Bus in Hama, Syria
In my earlier years of travel, I quickly began to notice a common theme taking place. I simply was not enjoying any of the major cities I was visiting and in the end, it was also affecting my feelings towards the countries as a whole where those cities were located.

Every time I landed in a new mega-metropolis, whether it be Kuala Lumpur or Buenos Aires or Ho Chi Minh City, I always found myself repeating that all too familiar phrase of ‘get me out of here!’ within a couple of hours.

Luckily, that all changed on that one fine day that I arrived in Delhi, India. As I roamed the streets only a short time after my flight landed, the only thing I could think about was my desire to be somewhere else. I simply didn’t want to put up with the intense culture-shock and I was finding it very difficult to enjoy myself at all.

And that’s when I realized that if I found myself wanting to ‘get out of there’, then I should just get out of there. Why was I forcing myself to stay in a city that was so overwhelming? Why should I be walking around the streets frustrated and just waiting to leave?

So, the very next morning, after only 12 hours in Delhi, I made my way to the bus station and boarded a bus to the town of Rishikesh, a small, spiritual town set in the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas, along the holy Ganges River. And as soon as I arrived six hours later, I realized that this had been one smart move. Life in Rishikesh is significantly more peaceful than in Delhi. It’s not very crowded or chaotic, vehicles aren’t even allowed in parts of the town, and I had no problem finding a simple guesthouse with great rooms right on the edge of the water.

Rishikesh, India

Relaxed and finally excited to be in India, I then proceeded to spend one week in Rishikesh, which I then followed with one month of travel through the laid-back mountain villages, towns and small cities of the Kashmir, Ladakh and Himachel Pradesh regions of Himalayan India.

Far from intense, this one month was calm and awe-inspiring, with day after day of incredible mountain scenery, rewarding human interactions and visits to isolated Tibetan communities that have remained relatively unchanged for centuries. This experience was nothing like being in Delhi, but at the same time, it was still India.

By the time I made my way out of the mountains, and after a three day stop in the medium-size city of Amritsar, I felt more than ready to once again tackle Delhi.

And tackle I did. What had been such an extremely shocking environment the first time around, now seemed quite fascinating. I was no longer overwhelmed. In fact, I was remarkably comfortable, even while walking around the densely packed markets of Old Delhi. Now I couldn’t wait to spend at least a week exploring every street and neighborhood I could find as every day turned out to be even more rewarding than the last.

LEAVE THE BIG CITIES FOR LATER

Santiago, Chile

These days, whenever anyone asks me about traveling overseas, I usually offer a piece of advice based upon my experience above.

Just because you are flying into a major city, doesn’t mean you need to stick around upon arrival. In fact, it might be an infinitely better idea to get out of that ‘crazy’ city as quickly as possible and start your trip off by spending some time in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Not only will this help you adjust to the unfamiliar surroundings of a new country, especially if it’s your first visit or even your first international trip, but it will also help avoid negative thoughts and experiences that may affect your travels as a whole. It would be a shame for a traveler to claim that they don’t like India or Thailand or Turkey or Mexico simply because they become too overwhelmed upon arrival in Delhi or Bangkok or Istanbul or Mexico City.

So my advice would be to jump on a bus or a train or even a flight or a ferry to somewhere less intimidating as soon as you arrive. Wait until you’re comfortable in this new country and until the initial culture shock has begun to wear off before you head back to the big city and all of its chaos. It might take a week or two or even a month before you feel ready, but I’m confident that you’ll notice a major difference with this method.

Chances are you’ll actually enjoy the time you spend in that city and instead of screaming ‘get me out of here!’, you’ll be looking for ways to extend your stay even longer.

And as a side note, this method is not only for inexperienced travelers. I still skip past major cities upon arrival every now and then when I visit a new country. Sometimes I just don’t feel like putting myself through a hard-core adjustment phase and so I much prefer to start my adventure in a more relaxed setting.


Does this idea make much sense? Do you think it would help lessen the initial culture shock of arriving in a foreign country?

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Comments 46

  1. Pingback: Life in a Big City: The Pros and Cons of Going Urban

  2. zelda

    It’s funny how some big cities can make you wonder if you’ve been reborn in some kind of hell, making me wonder what I did to deserve it, especially if one has to go there for visas or embassies. I almost cried 1000times these past 4 days.

  3. Leah Downs

    Earl, I agree completely about your take on cities, particularly those in Asia, Middle East. Have lived in both Asia and Europe and found Asian cities to be particularly intimidating because the language and culture is much more foreign than Europe. After 5 years oversees my husband and I have decided that travel to cities in general tends to be “energy-draining” and that traversing the countryside tends to be “life-giving.” Perhaps our feelings are due to the intimidation factor, though I’d not considered that until reading this post.

    Of course, traveling the countryside is much more difficult if you don’t have a car…in places like Italy it’s worth a rental or you can’t adequately explore the winding roads/wineries of Tuscany and the little out of the way places on public transit. Having learned that about ourselves (each traveler is different), we generally plan most of our stays exploring outside cities, unless it is a city with an iconic landmark/attraction that should not be missed (Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Big Ben, Roman Colosseum etc). For example, when we went to Thailand, we decided to pass on Bangkok altogether (it hadn’t gotten great reviews from friends), and spent our time instead on the island of Koh Samui…we also hate tourist traps so avoided the more well-know Phuket, which we felt would be the equivalent of “Disney Thailand.”

    That week on Koh Samui was the best vacation of our lives … the Thai people were FANTASTIC, some of the warmest of anywhere we’ve traveled. It wasn’t crowded, the food was ridiculously cheap and delicious and the beaches were beautiful. NO cities, and no stress.

    1. Earl

      Hey Leah – I think you have a great example of how every traveler should just follow the route that will make them happiest. There is certainly no need to travel and spend time in a massive, intense city if that is not something that doesn’t sound appealing to us. Some travelers love such cities, others don’t and for those that don’t, they might as well head to an island or the countryside, as you did in Thailand, and have an experience that will be significantly more enjoyable!

  4. Priyank

    Hi Earl,

    This is funny because I do the complete opposite. I love “big” cities and like spending the beginning of my trip in big cities. I look forward to deliberately travelling during rush hours, never taking a taxi from the airport, etc. The chaotic traffic, air pollution, crowd and the noise work as a stimulant. Perhaps it’s because I am simply trying recreate my childhood experiences growing up in Mumbai that I find peace in large cities. Or perhaps I know that things are only going to be easier from now on. I love the feeling of being anonymous and insignificant at the beginning of a trip in a new country.

    Coming back from Rishikesh to Delhi would be something I would hate doing. At the end of most of my trips, I return to the big city to take a flight the same day or the next morning.

    Hm, Earl, did you grow up in a big city or a smaller one? Do you think that’s a factor? And after all these years, do you think you will ever pull a Bangkok again?

    Priyank

    1. Earl

      Hey Priyank – That’s the good thing, this is just an option for those who don’t love the big cities as much. But sometimes I find myself craving the chaos as well and I jump right in with open arms!

      I grew up in a town of 30,000 about 30 minutes from Boston, which a smallish city. And don’t get me wrong, I love cities such as Delhi more than most people and even after traveling around India for several months I always make sure I spend at least a week in Delhi again before I fly out!

  5. Tom

    Hmm I’d never considered this before! However, I’ve gotta admit – I LOVE the mega cities. Arriving in Istanbul last summer was my first proper “solo travel” experience, I was super confused, but after a day or so I got into the swing of it (even after an initial period of holing myself up inside and doing some solid Facebooking).

    Then again, your method does make perfect sense – I’ll try and use it on my next extended trip and see what happens!

    1. Earl

      Hey Tom – Some people definitely love the craziness of big cities and if you don’t mind entering directly into the chaos, then I say go for it! But for those who don’t want to deal with the insanity from the very start, this is a good way to avoid becoming overwhelmed. There are often times when I love to be in the middle of the action from day one and there are times I want to relax upon arrival. Now I have a choice between both 🙂

      Thank so much for your comment!

  6. Keith Skinner

    Great advice. We traveled to Italy for first time at the same time that the cardinals were selecting a new pope. Rome was jammed and black smoke was coming out of the chimney. We didn’t want to be around when the white smoke emerged. So we immediately headed north and had an unforgettable experience.

    I think the biggest mistake people make, even when traveling to cities here in the US, is gravitating to “tourist slums.” It took several trips to NYC before I realized Midtown madness was not the typical NYC experience. Staying in the Village or even Grammercy makes the inevitable visits to 42nd St much more pleasant. Whether it’s Paris or Egypt, I always try to find the places where ex-pats would stay and find a hotel or apartment in that part of town.

    1. Earl

      Hey Keith – You are perfectly right….even in the US it pays to get out of the tourist centers. Whenever I go to NYC I stay with friends in Brooklyn and I rarely even make it into Manhattan because there is so much to explore in Brooklyn alone! Traveling more slowly and staying in apartments also helps because we are able to better adjust and avoid passing through a destination quickly. Slow travel is always a good option!

  7. Julian Hom

    My girlfriend and I had a very similar experience in Delhi. We had bee in India for three weeks before we got there. After just 12 hours in Delhi, we needed out. We headed north to Dharamsala. I’m so glad we did. I went from living India to wanting to live there. I cant wait to go back. You can read the whole story
    Here

    1. Earl

      Hey Julian – It’s funny how that happens….it can really change our entire opinion of a place, just by getting away from the craziness for a while. I’m a big fan of Dharamsala as well and always head up there whenever I need a break from the intensity of India.

  8. Global Basecamps Ali

    Great advice Earl! I lived in Shanghai for 4 years, and experienced extreme culture shock upon arrival. After trips to the country side and rural parts of China, I eventually came to appreciate the big city and looked forward to heading back to the crowds and craziness of it all! It just took some getting used to and I think easing into it by visiting smaller cities first is a great idea! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Earl

      @Global Basecamps: It does take some time in calmer locations before we can appreciate and handle all of the intensity of those big cities. There are so many small things to adjust to but even spending a week in a small village helps us adjust to many of those things at our own pace. Then, when we return to the city, we are infinitely more comfortable.

  9. Jeff

    The same thing happened to me. My girlfriend and I arrived in Bangkok at about 1 AM on New Year’s Eve. I’d been there before, but she’d never been outside of the US other than a hundred miles into Mexico. We’d quit our jobs, put our possessions into storage, etc. After two days in Bangkok, hating the traffic, feeling sick from the air pollution, worn out from the heat and humidity, and thoroughly grossed out by the mangy dogs running around, she declared that she’d give it another day or two, but that if things weren’t any better we were going home.

    Huh? Going home?

    So we got on the train and went to Koh Samui. Ah, much better. The rest of the trip was great. Over the three months we spent at least another week in Bangkok, and our later stays there were significantly better than the first one.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jeff – That’s such a good example of the dangers involved with judging a place so quickly after our arrival. I’m happy to hear that you managed to turn that around and head off to somewhere a bit more relaxed (a great deal more relaxed actually!). It really does make a difference as nobody wants to arrive somewhere new and deal with all of those challenges you mentioned.

      And of course, when you do head somewhere that is much less intense, the result is almost always positive, just as your decision to leave turned out to be.

      I appreciate the comment Jeff!

  10. Jodi

    I’m quite anxious about my first solo backpacking experience which starts in 3 days! I’m visiting 2 major asian cities (Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City) before I can sneak away to the countryside. At least I know if I end up hiding in my room for a few hours, that it’s a normal reaction. Very good post Earl… I felt a connection to it!

    1. Earl

      Hey Jodi – That’s definitely a normal reaction! And if you’re visiting Singapore first, I would highly recommend staying at a hostel/budget hotel in the Little India part of the city. It’s quite laid back, full of other travelers and a great area to get adjusted. Here’s a post I wrote a few months ago that you might find useful for Singapore: http://www.wanderingearl.com/sleep-eat-surf-in-singapore/

      And just wait until those first few hours are over and you step back out in the city. It won’t take long for you to start enjoying your travels at all!

  11. Heather Rae

    This is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen on a travel blog, and I think you got it exactly right. So many of us feel we have to “stick it out” when we arrive somewhere, when in reality, we don’t (especially if we don’t like it). I would even say this advice goes for the small cities too…or really any place you visit that makes you feel uncomfortable. I had a similar realization when I was in Thailand over the summer. I arrived on an island I simply sort of hated, and I kept telling myself that I should give it more time in order to really give it a chance. Until I realized…what the heck for? I was by myself, and I hadn’t paid in advance for my room. So I high-tailed it on out of there on the first bus I could catch. And I must say, I learned a great lesson and was incredibly happy with my choice to leave. Good piece of advice. 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Heather – It certainly does apply to any place, large or small. I’m not sure if we feel as if we failed in our travels if we leave a place after a short time, especially if it’s a place that so many other people seemed to enjoy and recommend, but it really doesn’t make any sense at all to stay somewhere when we don’t want to be there! As with your example, if we instead decide to leave and go somewhere new, chances are we are going to be infinitely much happier. Glad to know you followed through and left that island!

  12. Julia

    I think this is really good advice – either way, big city or small town. No matter where you are, if you feel uncomfortable, leave.
    Once when I was traveling through Australia, I came to a town called Nimbin (drugs and hippies and a little overwhelming bc everyone I saw was clearly out of their mind). I was told I HAD to see this place, as soon as I arrived, I passed out in a scary hostel, woke up the next day, walked down the main street once, and left. It was not my kind of place. Interesting, yes, but not what I was looking for while traveling through AU.

    1. Earl

      Hey Julia – I couldn’t stop laughing when I read your tale of Nimbin because I had a very similar experience over there. I arrived with a friend, we went for a walk down the main road and within ten minutes not only saw two fist fights in the street, but all of a sudden a man came running out of a bar with no shirt on and with a bear bottle sticking into the top of his head, with blood pouring down his face. He was naturally furious and was threatening everyone he passed. We just bought a brownie from a bakery and then drove to Byron Bay!

  13. Lavanya

    Although unknowingly, this is exactly what we did with Egypt where we are right now. We landed in Luxor and slowly explored the southern and eastern parts of the country for 15 days before getting to Cairo. And given the hassle you face here ( I would really like to find out how it is for a tourist in India as compared to Egypt, cos its quite aggressive much more than I’d imagined) it makes it much easier to deal with Cairo now.
    Good advice for all kind of travellers – new and experienced!

    1. Earl

      Hey Lavanya – Doing it unknowingly works as well 🙂 And this method definitely makes sense in a place like Egypt as Cairo can be as intimidating as any cit on the planet. It’s funny, as intense as Indian cities can be, I’ve found that many travelers will say that Cairo was more difficult to handle. Just like you noticed so far, Egypt does tend to feel a little more aggressive than India and even for me, I think that India might be easier to deal with at first. India is chaotic and intense but Egypt definitely required an even bigger effort to travel around.

      I’m sure you’re well adjusted by now so hopefully you’re enjoying your travels in that part of the world!

  14. Shannon

    I completely relate! I started my overseas trip in the Philippines. Unknowingly, I booked 3 nights in Manila ‘to help with my jet lag’. Little did I know Manila sucks. I then flew to Cebu, didn’t like that city either. I then decided to seek out the small islands and villages in the Philippines, and I love it! I am just not ready for the big cities yet.

    1. Earl

      Hey Shannon – That’s excellent that you made the decision to move on from places you didn’t enjoy at first. Not only does that make perfect sense, but you can always return to those places whenever you feel ready, which it appears you will do at some point. There’s no point in forcing ourselves to travel anywhere, especially if we’re not comfortable!!

  15. Xander McG

    Really sound advice Earl, something I will definitely pass on to anyone who’s nervous about their first trip away.

    Bangkok was my first destination on my first trip away earlier this year. Although I can’t say I was quite as overwhelmed as you were when I first arrived, it was definitely not what I was expecting. It wasn’t until a week later when two new friends and I climbed to the top of a waterfall in Doi Inthanon national park that I realised exactly why I’d come to the other side of the world. I think most people, especially on their first trip, don’t really think about the big city they’ll be flying into; everyone has white sand beaches or mountainous jungles in their heads, then suddenly find themselves in a sprawling metropolis, quite the opposite!

    I was lucky enough to have a very close friend living in Bangkok. So after my a month or so I returned and it seemed so different! (I actually ended up living there for two months!). Bangkok is a brilliant city, the crazy hecticness of it all actually adds to it’s appeal for me, although I can only be there so long before I need to get out into some space and see some trees! I found a lot of travelers I spoke to in Thailand said that they “hate” Bangkok, when I probed them about this it almost always turned out they’d only been there for two or three day at the begging of their trip. I implored all of them to go back a give it another chance; “it won’t seem as crazy as the first time!”.

    Xander.

    1. Earl

      Hey Xander – That’s what I’m talking about…hearing so many people claim to hate particular destination/city simply because of that initial, and quick, experience they had there. Bangkok is indeed a wonderful city and by the time I returned to Bangkok about 2 months after my first visit, I loved it as well. Unfortunately, many of those travelers you spoke with probably won’t go back, except for one night before they fly out, which will lead them to still hold those negative feelings for the place. Definitely a shame.

  16. Archan Mehta

    I admire you, Earl, for all that you are and all that you have done.

    Time and again, you have demonstrated an amazing ability to explore what is unknown. Full marks to you.

    You have the spirit of an explorer. It is a treat to read about exotic places through your eyes. Love your writing.

    Please keep up the good work. Wish you all the best on your travel sojourns all over the world. Keep us posted.

    Cheerio.

    1. Earl

      Thanks for that Archan. I really do appreciate your comment and even more so that you are following along with my adventures whenever you have time.

      I certainly hope you’ve been well as of late and I wish you all the best with your endeavors!

  17. Shannon

    I’m the kind of person who would have thought of this AWESOME advice before ever leaving! (and you should be making money off that! :P) Don’t know why I didn’t think of this, I’ve been going through fear factor (no not the TV show) scenarios of me getting to a big city and just standing there frozen or spinning circles in a panic waiting for someone back home to rescue me 😛

    My family thinks I am insane for going off on my own, I kind of do too but I want to do it anyway (I did it in NYC and Honolulu in 2010!) but I don’t think big cities in the USA can be compared to big cities in places like Thailand!

    Step it up a notch, someone who has trouble hearing and seeing will find it about 50% more difficult starting off in a big city so your advice is GRAND (probably a lifesaver) and I thank you for this write!

    1. Earl

      Hey Shannon – Don’t worry, it took me years to think of doing this myself! I’m not too sure why we get stuck on the idea that we have to stick around wherever it is we land. It sounds strange now but it just never occurs to many of us that we can simply move on to a more relaxed place if we want.

      And also, if your family thinks you’re insane for traveling on your own, then they are perfectly normal 🙂 Just stay focused and once you get out there and they see how much you’re enjoying yourself, chances are they’ll come around!

  18. Sachit Gupta

    Haha – are you me??! Did the exact same when I got to Khao San – thought I was out of my mind for doing the traveling thing and stayed in my hotel for 6 hours straight – I couldn’t even bring myself to get food!

    You know – I wish more people wrote about that side of beginners (or advanced) travel – times when you’re OMFG what the hell am I doing. Because its not always perfect. Thanks for this post :)!

    1. Earl

      Hey Sachit – Haha…see, now you should feel even better that you’re not the only person to go through that in Bangkok!! It happens to most of us 🙂

      And you’re right about it not always being perfect while on the road. There are many factors involved that can lead to frustration and moments when all we want to do is just pack up our backpacks and leave. Luckily, those moments usually pass, but there’s no denying that travel is not always an easy endeavor.

      I shall work on a few more posts about the challenges of being on the road, and believe me, they’ll all be based upon my own experiences!

  19. Steve C

    Earl, Great Stuff! Although I don’t ever remember being quite so intimidated when arriving in a new city, I do have memories of almost being overwhelmed by hawkers and taxi drivers trying to take advantage of another new arrival. I think I’ve minimized the shock by doing my homework ahead of time and knowing what to expect. I never arrive after dark without having a reservation. I hate reservations as they’re almost never the type of places I enjoy staying, so I always try to arrive early enough to find a place to stay before dark.

    I remember arriving after dark in Port of Spain, Trinidad with a reservation in what I thought would be a nice place. NOT! It turned out to be a pretty busy place in the red light district. It was too late to find another place so we just quickly went to our room and locked ourselves in for the night. As busy as it was that night, it was totally oppositely quiet the next morning.

    Earl, you’ve come up with some pretty good travel snippets, prodding readers with their own anecdotes of past & future trips. I hope you’re saving all of them for your next publication, an interactive e-book!

    1. Earl

      Hey Steve – Sometimes all it takes are the taxi drivers and touts waiting outside the airport to make us want to turn around and run the other way! And I’m with you about reservations. I’m never really a huge fan but these days, I generally do make one if I’m arriving late at night. At least there’s one less thing to worry about and we can always find a new place the next morning, especially if we end up in a place like you described in Trinidad. Sounds lovely 🙂

      And I appreciate the encouragement…I’m definitely keep track of everything and hope to publish something at some point down the road!

  20. twoOregonians

    Such an excellent point. It makes me think of my (very tame!) first trip overseas as a teenager: we flew into Paris and immediately took a train out to the Loire Valley. After a slow-paced week in rural France, warming up to the villages and friendly locals, we returned to Paris for a stretch of time in the inner city. Much less overwhelming at that point.

    1. Earl

      @twoOregonians: It is much less overwhelming. And your example is great because I didn’t want the focus of the post to only be on major cities in the developing world. It works for any city as there is almost always a challenging adjustment period required no matter where we go.

    1. Earl

      That’s great to hear Russell. The thing to remember is that we all go through that initial shock, but at the same time, we all adjust and not once do we regret making the decision to travel somewhere new!

  21. Randall

    I almost deleted this in my inbox. Glad that I didn’t.

    You always deliver a good story. I especially liked the one about Bangkok.

    I am so ready for some culture shock. I have been in the States for way too long now.

    1. Earl

      Hey Randall – I guess that’s the other side of the story. Sometimes all we want is to put ourselves in an environment that is as different from home as possible. Perhaps you need to fly straight to Delhi!

  22. Leif

    I like this advice. Big cities tend to give me anxiety at first as well. The way you felt about bangkok was exactly how I felt about arriving in Mumbai for the first time.
    From Delhi to Rishekesh was an excellent move!

    1. Earl

      Hey Leif – I can see how one would feel the same about Mumbai! When I returned to India a couple of years ago, a good friend of mine came along and it was his first time in India. Watching him try to handle Mumbai on the first couple of days was a good reminder of how intense such culture shock can be.

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