Driving a bus in India

Why Travelers Drive Buses, Ride Scooters & Pet Tigers

Derek India, Perspectives 59 Comments

Driving a bus in India

Stepping on the brakes, I slowed my car down to a crawl before rolling over the special speed bump set up by the Mexican police. I had arrived at the permanent road block located on the highway from Cancun to Playa del Carmen, a road block that I had passed through several dozen times before.

I knew the procedure well. After the speed bump, drivers should keep on driving unless one of the heavily armed police officers tells you to stop.

Luckily, the police here rarely stop foreigners, especially one driving a tiny, fifteen year old car (yes, me). But of course, on this occasion, when I glanced towards the police officer standing off to the side, we unfortunately made eye contact, which prompted him to stick out his hand and motion for me to pull over to a patch of dirt that acted as an inspection area.

And so, upon seeing this, I did the natural thing. I smiled widely, nodded my head and just kept on driving. Off I went, down the highway, continuing my journey to Playa del Carmen. I was tired. I was hungry. And I certainly wasn’t in the mood to be pulled over at a road block. So I didn’t stop.

After ignoring the officer, I glanced in my rear view mirror once I was about 100 feet down the road and sure enough, instead of hopping on his motorcycle to chase me down or pulling out his automatic weapon and firing warning shots at my car, he was just standing there, observing the next group of cars that were passing through the road block.

BENDABLE RULES

I’m perfectly aware that giving people the ability to bend, or even completely ignore, rules and laws, does not help create the most ideal or orderly of societies. Problems, severe problems, plague any country where such a lack of consequences exists and where law and order are fuzzy at best.

But putting that fact aside for a moment, as a foreigner hailing from a country where rules and laws are not meant, or allowed, to be bent or broken, and where most facets of our lives are fully dictated by such rules and laws, I must admit that I get a thrill from being able to drive straight through a road block. It’s the same thrill I feel when sneaking into the tribal region of Pakistan in order to visit the wild gun-producing town of Darra Adem Khel or slipping a $20 bill to an Air India gate agent in exchange for a first class seat before boarding my flight or even when simply riding on the roof of a bus through Laos.

And I don’t think I’m alone. Travelers in general seem to get high on the freedom to behave in a way that our home countries would never allow. I’m not talking about committing crimes. Instead, I’m talking about the reason why so many blog posts about Thailand, especially from those visiting for the first time, include stories of driving a motorbike or scooter ‘just like the locals do’. Of course, there are rules when driving in Thailand, but the somewhat relaxed notion of driving lanes and the meaning of red lights is more than enough to give us a thrill unlike any other. It’s also why travelers play with tigers and white rhinos, love to exchange money on the black market, bargain for everything and attend parties more wild than any rule or law would ever permit at home.

Tiger Temple Thailand

A COUNTRY WITHOUT MANY RULES

This freedom from rules and consequences is one of the reasons I love India so much. Over there, rules are often non-existent, and the ones that do exist, can be bent, ignored, re-arranged or completely changed. You can jump on a train without a ticket and without fear of being kicked off and arrested. If you’re caught, you just sort the situation out right then and there. You can drive a motorcycle without a license, push and shove your way to the front of a queue without angering anyone (such behavior is expected), convince a bus driver to let you drive the bus, hitch a ride in an army truck full of armed soldiers on their way to Kashmir or even purchase an elephant if you really wanted one and had the cash on hand.

Sab kuch milega, as the Indians say. ‘Everything is possible’.

Of course, despite the presence of bendable rules and laws in many countries, I don’t exactly travel around with a Kaleshnikov rifle hanging off of my backpack, urinate my name onto every building I pass and bribe my way through every country. Not at all.

I simply enjoy wandering around knowing full well that what may be completely impossible to make happen back home, could now be achieved in an instant. It’s that freedom to ‘create the rules as you go’ that brings the saliva to the edge of my mouth and leaves me feeling giddy about the endless possibilities that each day holds.


Do you feel this same giddiness while in places with loose rules and laws? For those who have yet to travel, can you imagine being in a place that allows you to do the things I’ve mentioned above?

Photo Credit: Tiger Temple

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Comments 59

  1. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures

    Such an interesting post! Definitely made me think about my own travels through countries with loose laws. I think I shifted in my thinking on my trip to Nicaragua. I was constantly being taken advantage of by the police because I was a gringa and finally halfway through the trip I decided enough was enough and I refused to be treated like that anymore. I haven’t felt bad ignoring or breaking laws in certain countries ever since.

    1. Earl

      Hola Andi – Sometimes that’s what it takes…you just need to take a stand and make your own set of rules. If you don’t, as you clearly understood in Nicaragua, you’ll be taken advantage of and can run into some more severe problems.

  2. Elie

    I definitely think that the ‘lack’ of rules in certain countries take some getting used to…driving past cops etc goes past much of what you have been drilled into thinking back at home….but then, you get used to it. I can’t count the number of times we have driven past cops, paid bribes and broke the rules now!

    1. Earl

      Hey Elie – It definitely takes some time to get adjusted to. First, the entire concept of being able to bend rules is completely foreign to most of us when we begin traveling and second, going ahead and actually bending rules requires an entirely different mindset! Be safe out there!

  3. Brian Wadman

    I love this post. You have summed up my feelings about America (Boston in particular) We all need to chill out a little over here, break a harmless rule now and again without being judged as a poisoner of youth/bad parent ect.. I’m thinking about how I drive my scooter without a helmet and sometimes don’t buckle my 3 year old in when we are only going for a short drive. God forgive me!!!

    1. Earl

      Hey Brian – About an hour ago, as I was walking back to my apartment, I saw a family of 4 (2 adults, 2 children) on a scooter, all without helmets and I immediately thought of how wrong that would appear back home. Granted, it’s not the safest of ideas, but I do agree that we need to be a little more relaxed about such things. Such is the attraction of many third-world countries.

  4. Bluegreen Kirk

    Though i can certainly see your points and how obviously you have grown used to these things it would simply freak me out. Then again I live in the states and getting on something without paying, sneaking into movies and pushing and shoving to get to the front is looked upon as rude and unacceptable. Then again over there people grow up with it being expected so it just depends on were you are.

    1. Earl

      @Bluegreen Kirk: I would have said the exact same thing before I started traveling and even after spending a couple of years on the road I still wasn’t used to it. But like anything, the more time we spend in such an environment, the more normal it becomes. The good thing is that when I’m visiting family and friends back in the US I’m still able to differentiate and I stop myself from pushing everyone out of my way at the movie theater 🙂

  5. Forest

    I agree as a traveller the tendency to break rules is common and we all do it. Sadly countries that don’t have hard and fast rules allow people who have some form of authority to bend rules to suit themselves too.

    A politician can take ALL the money collected for a project and use it to fund a party. A policeman can arrest a man and heavily beat him for looking at his daughter in a way he didn’t like and endless other examples.

    It also causes issues when it comes to places that need rules. The temples in Egypt are supposed to be protected but give a guard 5 pounds (not much under his wages for the day) and he will take you into any dark hidden recess of a supposed protected site!

    It’s fun but it many cases it is wrong sadly.

    Still, a great post as always and good food for thought 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Forest – Those are the kinds of examples of severe problems I quickly referred to in the post and why I wanted to make a distinction between the undeniable thrill and the reality, which is that such societies are not ideal. The problems associated with bendable rules are infinite as any time that certain people have the power to create the law as they go, others are going to suffer the consequences. I’d say that in most cases the need to bend the rules is wrong but in many cases it’s unavoidable in order to get things done. Quite an unfortunate situation for a country to be in.

  6. jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World

    Coming from the opposite end, where I’m used to everything is possible mentality in Indonesia, I found living in the US a tad strict and dry when it comes to the interpretation of the law. Feeling much more at home here in South America 🙂 But having said that, I don’t usually break the rules only because I can, but I do love how flexible the interpretation of a rule can be.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jill – The word ‘interpretation’ is a word I should have used in the post as that captures exactly what I was talking about. It’s not going outside with the intent to break the law, but merely being aware that many rules are open to interpretation depending on the situation.

      Glad you’re comfortable down there in South America. I’d say most of Latin America has a nice balance of strict and bendable rules…

  7. andy newbom

    SOOOO understand!! we just moved to El Salvador from California. It has been a fun adventure learnign what rules matter and which ones dont. Rules: they dont affect us too much, we live in Latin America. JAJAJAJAJ

    great post dude!

    1. Earl

      Hey Andy – El Salvador is definitely one of those places. Although, just be careful, if you mistake a strict rule for a bendable rule, the results will be quite different!

  8. Erica

    I’m still trying to get that philosophy under my belt. I have training wheels on currently trying to get over my Type A personality. Love this post!

    1. Earl

      Hey Erica – Give it some more time and I’m sure you’ll be bending rules with the best of them! Latin America is a good training ground for that 🙂

  9. Christian Hollingsworth

    When I did some traveling down to Baja Mexico, the resort next to ours had a huge lion in a cage. It was rather sad, but so interesting to see such a large animal, in a tiny cage – and it was completely allowed. Whether or not it was legal I don’t know – but it was still there.

    They also did little plane tours from the beach, which seemed extremely dangerous, but so cool to see the difference in lifestyle around the world!

    That tiger looks beautiful. What majestic creatures.

    1. Earl

      Hey Christian – I doubt it was technically legal to have that lion but I’m sure some money exchanged hands to make it happen. Even in the part of Mexico where I am now there is one guy walking around with a jaguar, trying to get tourists to pay for a photo with it, which is not legal at all, but he does it in the open.

      And seeing the different way that things are done in different places is always an eye-opener. It’s easy for us to think that what we’re used to is the right and best way to do things but traveling suddenly shows us that other people are doing things completely differently without problems as well!

  10. scott

    Earl,
    This is a fun read. I am one of those people who believes in rules, I too am a type A personality. I rarely break the rules, however when I am in another country, I don’t always know the rules, I often get this rush of adrenaline when I believe I have broken or bended one of their rules, whether I did or didn’t doesn’t really matter. It makes me feel just a bit dangerous and rebellious. I enjoy reading your viewpoints

    scott

    1. Earl

      Thanks for the comment Scott! When I know there are clear rules with clear consequences, I also don’t dare bend or break them. But when there simply aren’t clear rules and I’m certain that there are no consequences, I’ll happily join in the game along with the locals. And that’s an interesting thought you had about feeling that rush without even knowing if you’ve bended the rules. Sometimes it’s just impossible for us to know the rules. Luckily, if we do get caught doing something wrong as a result, we can usually claim tourist ignorance and get away with it the first time around.

  11. Linda

    I can totally identify with this, though I am, at heart, a respect-the-rules type of person. I’ve noted in the past a different side of me emerge as soon as I am in the queue to check in at the airport.

    It’s interesting to note where a certain type of ex-pat fit into this mindset….and I speak of people who live for years and years outside their own country, not passers through. Neither at home nor travelling they often choose to bend or ignore rules, because they seem to think “it’s not real life” (actually a quote from someone, that) when they aren’t “at home”. They dodge taxes, ignore officialdom (often because they can’t be bothered to learn a language, adding to their sense of unreality) and dress in ways they wouldn’t be caught dead in at home. Perhaps it’s that sense of freedom that keeps them from integrating – once you do that it implies accepting responsibility within the community? And perhaps that’s also what keeps them wherever they are?

    1. Earl

      Hey Linda – I have heard and seen that ‘it’s not real life’ mentality as well during my travels. Such expats seem to be living overseas in order to rebel against life and when they bend or break rules, it is not because that is the accepted way of life in a certain country, but because they feel entitled to live exactly how they want as a foreigner in a foreign land. It’s a feeling of superiority that seems to take control of their lives.

      That is definitely not how I approach things at all. When I refer to bending rules, I am talking about participating along with the locals whose daily lives require such rule-bending due to the lack of an organized government to keep things in order. In some places, there is no other choice but to sort out situations right away through not legal means.

      And if I do happen to see you at an airport somewhere, I now know to wait until you finish checking in before I join the queue 🙂

      1. Linda

        LOL! on the last comment.

        Hope you didn’t think I was implying you thought like the expats (nor even that all ex-pats are like that!)!! Just that your post made my mind run on about rules and living abroad. In fact what you’re talking about is the opposite.

  12. Lewis Q

    Man, you have just figured out exactly what I was trying to work out last night while riding my scooter. I’m in Bali Indonesia right now and while this place isn’t exactly the wild wild west, I often find myself mischievously smiling about nothing in particular, the freedom from the rules I’m used to (once in a while) is enough to get the adrenaline flowing 😀

    1. Earl

      Hey Lewis – I know that feeling all too well! Not only is it riding the scooter, but probably everything you see around you as well. Everywhere you turn there are things that would never be allowed back home (huge pot holes, people trying to sell things in the streets, chaotic traffic, etc.). And even if they are small things, wwhen all put together, it creates an absolute thrill for those not used to such an environment. I love it!

      Enjoy your time in Bali and thanks so much for your comment!

  13. Dave from The Longest Way Home

    Some interesting points here Earl.

    I’ve seen “typical” tourists push the boundaries of rules and regulations in other countries to the limit.

    Many are younger travelers who are unleashed from parental restrictions for the first time, and now find themselves free for the first time. So naturally enough, many go over board.

    I believe, however, most are utterly clueless as to what the rules and regulations are in other countries. It’s not like you get a slip of paper when you enter a new country saying “we drive on the left here”.

    Though I do like Singapore’s warning leaflets upon arrival about death penalty for drug usage when you arrive.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dave – I agree with you and I think there is a major difference between travelers who are pushing the boundaries because they feel they can do so due to their ‘tourist status’ (which often leads people to do things that are completely illegal to see if they can get away with it) and those who are bending rules as the local system allows and expects. The first group can very well face severe consequences while the second group generally won’t as they have learned how life works wherever they are, which often requires a little rule bending every now and then just to get things done.

      And I think one needs to spend a significant amount of time in a particular country before really understanding the customs and which rules have some flexibility attached.

      When I was recently crossing from Malaysia to Singapore, the biggest sign in the immigration hall stated that ‘smuggling chewing gum into Singapore was a crime’. I can only imagine how many people they catch bringing gum into the country without realizing it’s a crime. Luckily there’s no death penalty for that one!

        1. Earl

          Hey Vishal – I couldn’t tell if your comment was sarcastic or not! But if it wasn’t, then, yes, it is illegal to import or sell chewing gum in Singapore.

  14. Natalie

    I love playing the “I am a tourist” card. I recently went to a festival here in Turkey and I know that if I had been with my Turkish friends that the day would not of been half as exciting as it was. I was a tourist and that allowed me to push the boundaries even further.

    1. Earl

      Hey Natalie – That’s a whole other realm…playing the tourist card! Most of what I referred to involves bending rules that locals commonly bend as well.

      Being the tourist can definitely prove useful at times, especially in countries where people really want to make sure foreigners feel welcome. This can lead to the relaxation of certain rules just for the tourist, which, as you experienced at your festival, can have its advantages 🙂

  15. nateniale

    While I’m from Asia and growing up in a country where certain rules may be bendable (to a certain extent but definitely not like India!), I would always follow the rules when I’m travelling! Do not want to be thrown into prison in a foreign country!

    1. Earl

      Hey Nateniale – I agree that following the rules is important. What I’m talking about here are situations when there are no clear rules, something that is quite common in many parts of the world. Whether the government is unorganized, uninterested or simply not capable of enforcing rules, the people are often left to sort out situations on their own (such as paying the guy on the train to give you a seat instead of being kicked off). In these cases, you won’t be thrown in prison. I would avoid anything that might lead me to jail as well!

  16. Russ

    Off the subject a little, everyone does realize that the Tiger Temple in India sedates it’s tigers. And there are multiple organizations, including National Geographic, that state that the temple buys & sells tigers from commercial Tiger Farms, as opposed to their claim of having “saved” the tigers they have.

    1. Earl

      Hey Russ – I have heard many reports that the Tiger Temple is not what it claims to be and naturally, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true at all. And even sedated, there have been a couple of incidents in which the tigers have attacked visitors, which obviously makes the whole operation sketchy from all sides.

  17. Dean

    Being able to bend the rules is definitely appealing when over seas. I don’t think I would ever do anything that could get me thrown in jail, but even small things like bribes or riding a bike without a helmet are a big difference. I agree with Caz, here in Australia there are so many rules that you can hardly do anything anymore. Even being able to buy alcohol in a supermarket is bending the rules for us!

    1. Earl

      Hey Dean – Haha….perhaps Australians should carry around a checklist of rules to read before they do anything in order to confirm that it is legal!

      And you’re right about the small things. What may seem like nothing to some, can be a big deal/thrill to others who have never been allowed to ride a bike without a helmet or pay $5 to the ticket man on the train for a better seat. I don’t want to end up in jail either and I definitely make decisions that I know won’t have such a result. The longer one stays in a particular country, the more one figures out which rules are bendable and which rules clearly are not!

  18. Caz Makepeace

    Totally agree. Craig and I moan all the time about the rules here in Australia. I think Australia is the absolute worse country for rules. We have so many of them, it is ridiculous and of course heavy fines always back them up. I’m so tired of it. How about we spend more time into teaching people how to be responsible and respectful. They have just brought in a rule that you can get fined in Victoria for offensive swearing in public. The government will make millions.
    After travelling for so long overseas without wearing seatbelts, I kind of detest putting one on now. I feel like my freedom is being taken away!! Never mind the safety aspect.
    We found we had a lot more freedom in the US. We particularly loved how you could ride around in the back of a pick up. We’d done it heaps of times in Asia and Africa, but to be able to do that in the Western world was a real thrill for us!!

    1. Earl

      Hey Caz – Australia is definitely one of the bigger police states out there and every time I visit, I always find more rules that I can’t believe exist. One of my friends in Melbourne has been pulled over twice for riding his bike without a helmet, and both times it was because he had unbuckled his helmet seconds before pulling into the garage of his house!

      But I guess most people get used to it as they don’t know of any other way. And considering that you’ve spent significant time outside of the country, the difference in rules between countries is going to be even more clear (and frustrating).

      And that’s interesting about the freedom to ride in the back of a pick up truck, although, I’m quite sure you can’t do that in most states. That must be a North Carolina thing as growing up in Boston, that was definitely not allowed 🙂

  19. The Travel Chica

    I’m with Megan on the whole being afraid to be thrown in prison in a foreign country thing. I do tend to the like the relaxed nature of most of the countries I’ve traveled through in Latin America, and I assume that has to do with a lack of laws (or maybe lack of enforcement).

    However, my big issue is with drunk or dangerous bus drivers. The chicken bus drivers were crazy in Guatemala. And I’ve heard many bad stories from Peru and Bolivia where dangerous roads make dangerous drivers even worse. Not all laws are bad, especially when it really does affect your safety.

    1. Earl

      @The Travel Chica: Of course, I absolutely agree, which is why I wanted to state that a society without rules is not ideal at all. For the purpose of this post, I was trying to separate that clear fact with the fact that there is a thrill involved with being in places with relaxed rules. Being driven to your destination by a dangerous bus driver does not provide that thrill at all for me either!

      And this leads to a good point. A lack of clear rules also can create a greater atmosphere of fear than what we’re used to back home as well.

      I appreciate you sharing your thoughts!

  20. Catherine

    You are on to something here. I’m in Thailand because there is too much order in the west. Too much same same. Too many rules. But when it comes pushing in front of me in a line, beware. I can use those very same lack of rules to my advantage as well 😉

    1. Earl

      Hey Catherine – That’s the beauty of the line pushing strategy. It’s all fair game and whoever gets to the front of the line first, deserves to be helped first due to their efforts!

  21. Jasmine

    That’s funny, I can relate a lot. Every time I go back to the US I’m always amazed at how rigid the laws and certain social customs are that here aren’t. One example is that in Colombia, if you have a quick question to ask someone sitting behind a desk and there’s a line, you can just walk up to the front of the line and butt into the conversation of the person being serviced to ask the question. Or the fact that you can haggle over everything, bus tickets included. And there’s no ridiculous bureaucracy, like “oh I have to ask my manager”…

    1. Earl

      Hey Jasmine – Yes, what you described is exactly what I was talking about! It’s almost like the people are trusted themselves to sort things out instead of the government providing a strict rule for every facet of life. And to me, that can be quite addicting as it gives you more control over your own actions. I’m a big fan of walking to the front of the line to ask a question as well. Even here in Mexico that’s perfectly acceptable and it certainly reduces any frustration of having to wait for 30 minutes just to find out you’re in the wrong place!

  22. Megan

    I have to admit, I am too scared of being shot or thrown into prison in a foreign country to break rules or laws too often! I’ve always been overly cautious and while I do get somewhat adventurous when I travel (lots of people seem to think travelling as a solo female is a crazy adventure in its own right…hmmm) I prefer to err on the side of caution. Though next time I fly Air India I’m totally going to try and get into first class… 😀

    …in lines, however, particularly in Asia, I am more than happy to push, shove, elbow and drop my shoulder with the best of them. Especially in China and India. Being taller helps! And in the Middle East I took great delight in pushing in front of any men, particularly at immigration in Cairo, where the officer was processing anyone who could get their passport closest to his face.

    1. Earl

      Hey Megan – I might have been misunderstood with this post. I’m definitely not talking about going out there and blatantly breaking rules or laws or trying to avoid consequences. Instead, I meant to discuss the thrill of bending the rules, as locals do, in situations where there are no consequences. If there was a sign at the airport that stated, “Bribing results in jail time” (which I have seen in places like Singapore), I would never slip a $20 bill to the gate agent. Going to prison is not exactly high up on my list of things to do either 🙂

      As for pushing to the front of the line, women travelers do have a huge advantage with this in many parts of the Middle East and Asia. You can cut the line altogether in most cases and nobody can say anything!

  23. cashflowmantra

    Sorry, I can’t say that I would necessarily appreciate the disorder. I am type “A” personality all the way. I get annoyed when something isn’t where it is supposed to be. A place for everything and everything in its place. I must say that I am getting better and trying to be more laid back, but I would have stopped at the road block. Although I suppose had I spent as much time out and about, maybe I could have adapted.

    1. Earl

      @cashflowmantra: Well, traveling to such chaotic places is of course not for everyone and it does seem like it wouldn’t be the best match for your personality!

      As for the road block, the only reason I didn’t stop was because I had passed through it so many times before and I knew for certain that they wouldn’t care if a foreigner drove through. Had I thought there might be consequences, I would have of course stopped.

  24. Dalene Heck

    I’m curious to know how long it took you to really feel that way – exploring to see how bendy the rules are! After 18 months in Latin America, I still find myself more apt to be a follower. It was beaten into me pretty good, I guess. 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Dalene – It took quite a few years of traveling to reach this point but more than time, it was constant travel in such countries that made me so familiar and comfortable in environments with bendable rules. I certainly don’t go around breaking laws (and I hope I didn’t given that impression with this post), but wherever there is some wiggle room to make things happen, I enjoy bending the rules, just as the locals often do during the normal course of their days.

      There’s nothing wrong with being a rule follower of course, and in much of Latin America, I wouldn’t go messing around with the rules either (and neither do locals) 🙂

      1. Dalene Heck

        Good point. For as much as it is nice to have the freedom to bend the rules, that also means that the “enforcers” have some of that freedom too. I really wouldn’t want to get too far on the bad side of certain cops. 🙂

  25. Stephen

    Its that sense of instant adventure, right? All you have to do is hop on a motorbike, and you feel like you’re doing something exciting.

    And I suppose these stories make for really easy-to-tell anecdotes, which plays well to blogging.

    1. Earl

      Hey Stephen – It is instant adventure. We suddenly find ourselves in an adult world without clear cut rules, which allows us to do things which seem exciting to us even though they are just normal to locals. What we’d have to go through at home to take a motorcycle for a spin!

  26. Sam

    I think I understand what you’re talking about, Earl, but most of these things would just stress me out. Getting on a train without a ticket or pushing and shoving to the front of a queue are never things I would do for a thrill because they would make me way too anxious or annoyed. I am a product of the culture of my birth, I guess. But on the other hand, maybe I just haven’t travelled enough yet to properly appreciate them!

    1. Earl

      Hey Sam – I can understand perfectly well your thoughts. I think for me, after having spent 90% of the past 12 years outside of the US, I am more used to the non-rules of places like India than I am to the more organized cultures of the West. It took a while to reach that point of course but now I just feel more comfortable in such environments.

      By the way, have you had your first third-world barber shop shave yet?

      1. Sam

        Yes, I had one soon after we met, once I got to Damascus. I think it was from the guy you recommended near the Al-Rabie/Al-Haramain hotels. Not at all traumatic.

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