Touring Indochina

 

Adventure, yeah.

I guess that’s what you call it

when everybody comes back alive. 

Mercedes Lackey

 

Early at Angkor W(h)at?!

 

This week’s weather has officially done away with winter and please let’s not start complaining about the heat because this is nothing close to how summer gets in Asia. April and May are the warmest months in that region of simply ‘dry or wet’ seasons and ‘hot-hotter-hottest.’ So if you’re keen on heading that way this year, wait after the cooling monsoon rains blow off some of the heat.  And if you must travel solo, tours like National Geographic Adventures will make sure you’ll have the best time and never feel like you’re traveling alone.

Here’s a glimpse of the fun I had in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia with an active and erudite group of engineers, doctors and lawyers:

 

 Hue, Vietnam 

Stopping to hang with locals going about their day as we bike through town and rice paddies.  Whatever calories we expended was well rewarded with great meals including  a very special private lunch at Tha Om, a century old garden house made from local timber that didn’t require the use of a single nail.

 

Indochina Sails, Ha Long Bay

Cruise Ha Long Bay on a traditional-style wooden junk boat. Kayak around karst formations, visit caves and local fishermen’s boathouses. Just to be on the safe side, I waited until our cruise was about to dock before attempting this Titanic themed shot.

So grateful to our petite yet fearless tour leader who was completely unflappable and generous with her loving kindness and Buddhist wisdom.

Waterfalls at Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is a World Heritage site chosen by an ancient king for the protection provided by its surrounding hills, rivers and mountains. It sits at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.

We spent a day visiting some Buddhist shrines then joined a local family for a Buddhist Baci ceremony followed by dinner in their home.

Another day we hiked up a hill, stopping by the school of a Khmu village to play with the children and with its traditional houses, water buffalo and farm animals, the farmers and master blacksmiths dealing with their daily tasks.  We wound up at Ban Thapene, a village with a butterfly park founded by this courageous Dutch couple who seek to educate children on the importance of small bugs and insects in the world’s ecological balance.

 

I made an exception to my religion of waking up as late as possible and rose before the sun to catch the enchanting sight of hundreds of saffron-robed monks walking silently through town to collect offerings.  Even more impressive–since I’d rather not be in the kitchen–are those who have committed years of waking even earlier than these monks to cook hot food to offer them.

Ancient Temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Explore one of the most ancient temple sites in the region: the Roluos Group. Bike around the countryside and make a stop at local house to enjoy snacks and meet the locals. My favorite temple is the ancient Ta Prohm Monastery, where humongous tree roots weave their way through the temple walls—hence the “Jungle Temple” nickname and more popularly “Tomb Raider temple” after Angelina Jolie’s movie.

Angkor Wat is  the Times Square of Cambodia and you’ll find yourself in traffic at 4:00 am in the morning as tourists hurry to snag a prime spot for catching the sunrise behind the temple. The vernal equinox on March 22 is THE DAY to see the sun rise exactly at the center point of the highest temple spire. Genius math for such ancient architecture!

Click on “Leave a Comment” (top left) to share what’s on your travel bucket list.

xoxox

Give the women you love the most unique gift

of elegant and timeless portraits

with  a Powerful Goddess Gift Certificate

for a two hour photo shoot of up to three people:

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© Sharon Birke

Managing Member, DoubleSmart LLC

201 697 1947

Sharon@PowerfulGoddess.com

www.PowerfulGoddess.com

Glamour Portraits of the Goddess in Every Woman

Best Family Ski Trip: Mont Tremblant

 

I do uphill skiing.

Downhill skiing

is for nerd amateurs.

Judah Friedlander

 

Mont Tremblant Village

It will probably take another lifetime for me to attempt skiing, but when that day comes, I know exactly where the experience is fun for the whole family in the Northeast. Mont Tremblant in Quebec, Canada has 96 trails from Green to Black Diamond where you have the option of watching your ski bunnies from your warm and toasty hotel room.

Save yourself the trouble of parking the car and schlepping everyone’s skis by staying at one of the ski-in ski-out hotels in Tremblant’s quaint pedestrian village. If not, between the bunny hill and gondola is a kiosk known as the Tremblant Ski Valet where you can keep your skis and poles at the base of the mountain.

The best hotels with the ski-in/ski-out advantage are:

Fairmont Mont Tremblant.   Sits overlooking all the action on Place St-Bernard, a hop to the best coffee shop in the village, Au Grain de Cafe, Centre Aventure (where you pick up your lift tickets and rentals), the tour-booking office, the gondola that takes you to the summit, a chair lift, and the bunny hill that’s converted for night tubing most nights from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. The hotel has its own, free valet service on the terrace level where your skis were taken in, dried daily and packed up in your ski bag the day you check out.

Sommet Des Neiges. You’ll get very spoiled by the convenience of having your ski lockers right next to the gondola! All rooms are one bedroom suites with your own washer/dryer and kitchenette. Right below the window of your mountain view room is the bunny slope where there’s all day entertainment watching adorable ski “midgets” (3 to 12 year olds) and their ever patient instructors who help prop them up when they lay helpless toppled over. The $13 overnight parking fee must the best deal in the entire town.

Restaurant options within Tremblant’s village:

La Savoie Restaurant has excellent fondues and wine.

The Creperie (La Maison De La Crepe) has sweet and savory selections–delicious for most though not intended to be held up to the French standard.

The Pizzateria has a fun vibe, with a lovely terrace in summer.

Le Forge Bar et Grill for apres-ski pub far has delicious burgers and grilled salmon on a plank.

If you don’t mind a short drive:

La Petit Cachee (considered a must when in Tremblant) looks like a quaint ski lodge with fine dining and a kids’ menu. Try the grilled salmon with foie gras or their famous Normand’s braised ribs.

Seb L’Artisan for the more serious foodie–it even has its own published cookbook.

Le Cheval de Jade another very well-rated restaurant in a homey atmosphere.

Click on “Leave a Comment” (top left) to share your winter holiday favorites.

xoxox

 

Gondola and bunny hill right outside your Sommet Des Neiges window

Spoiled for choice with 96 Trails!

Top of Mont Tremblant

Cafe at the top of the mountain

Northern View from the top of the world

Looking out at the Fairmont Hotel across the slope

 

xoxox

Give the women you love the most unique gift

of elegant and timeless portraits

with  a Powerful Goddess Gift Certificate

for a two hour photo shoot of up to three people:

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© Sharon Birke

Managing Member, DoubleSmart LLC

201 697 1947

Sharon@PowerfulGoddess.com

www.PowerfulGoddess.com

Glamour Portraits of the Goddess in Every Woman

 

 

 

Wander Women

 

Our happiest moments as tourists

always seem to come when we stumble

upon one thing while in pursuit

of something else.

Lawrence Block

 

 

In planning a holiday, do you ever feel torn between your inner gym rat and spa goddess? I am definitely neither. I don’t see the point of giving up an hour of a good night’s sleep to workout before the start of what is already called a work day. I am confident sunsets are just as lovely as a sunrise. I do not have patience for enclosed chambers with scents or recycled air when my lungs are involved in aerobic exercise. My skin crawls at the thought of spandex, sneakers and extended lounging in bathrobes in public spaces. I question the regimen of standing (or even sitting) upright when the laptop has been ingeniously designed for a comfortable recline on the sofa.  And hard as I try, I simply can’t think of one good reason why I should be running when no one’s chasing me.

This December, I shall explore where I belong in the spectrum in between. I will give up my usual seat on an air-conditioned tour bus to join a National Geographic Expedition where the itinerary includes days of two to four hours on the kayak or hiking and six to eight miles of biking in 90 degree heat. Even without the physical strains, their recommended list of what to pack already tests the religion of my closet:  a hat with a chin strap, a rain jacket that blends with the crowd, sneakers, a backpack and a 44 lb. baggage weight limit for a two week trip. Holy Mother of Glam!

If you’d rather not be seen this underdressed in male company, Travel & Leisure recommends adventure companies that cater to female travelers only. Why not consider a new spin on the bachelorette party, the mother daughter weekend, the sisters bonding holiday, the stocking stuffer?

 

Adventures in Good Company  Specializes in expeditions in the U.S., like dog-sledding and snowshoeing on the shores of Lake Superior

Balanced Rock  This nonprofit’s yearly Women of Color Wilderness Retreats in Yosemite combine survival-skill building, yoga, and mindfulness exercises.

Wild Women Expeditions  Leads intimate journeys, like a horseback ride across Mongolia, designed to foster inclusivity.

Adventure Women  Books luxe trips, most lasting at least a week, to 26 destinations — like hiking, biking, and whitewater rafting in Colombia.

Explorer Chick  The company arranges backpacking trips in the American West and Appalachia, including a trek in the Great Smoky Mountains.

WHOA Travel   Climbing Kilimanjaro and other destinations like Bavaria, Peru, Nepal, Russia, and India.

REI Women’s Adventures  This outdoor-gear co-op leads ambitious expeditions, like a South Africa safari, and three-day Outessa retreats in California, Oregon, and New Hampshire.  Outessa is another REI brand.

Fit & Fly Girl   Daily workouts anchor retreats to party-friendly locales like Ibiza, Spain.

FP Escapes  The Free People clothing brand’s itineraries in places like Nicaragua’s Playa Maderas emphasize mind-body connection

Damesly  Hosts self-discovery workshops in Arizona, Hawaii, and Iceland.

One more that’s personally recommended by a friend who travels the globe year round:  Private Journeys  for small group luxury and exotic destinations.

Intimidated or not, I love National Geographic Expeditions for their commitment to environment conservation through sustainable travel and donating 27% of proceeds to the National Geographic Society, whose explorers and researchers are furthering our understanding of the planet.

A challenge is a good thing when you begin to think you have clearly delineated fences around your ways of being. Even if I don’t discover the Iron Woman in me, at least, the hotels will be fabulous and I’ll have a few laughs to share when I get back in January.

Click on “Leave a Comment” (top left) to share your most memorable, albeit unlikely, adventure.

xoxox

 

Give the women you love the most unique gift

of elegant and timeless portraits

with  a Powerful Goddess Gift Certificate

for a two hour photo shoot of up to three people:

Buy Now Button with Credit Cards

© Sharon Birke

Managing Member, DoubleSmart LLC

201 697 1947

Sharon@PowerfulGoddess.com

www.PowerfulGoddess.com

Glamour Portraits of the Goddess in Every Woman

 

Italy With Teen

A good holiday is one spent

among people whose notions of time

are vaguer than yours.

J.B. Priestley

italy-rome-coliseum-sharon-birke

Winter break now and Spring break soon! With Milan offering the best airfare accessible to favorable climes by train, here is a quick week’s itinerary if you can travel light with your teen.

From Milan’s Malpensa airport, take the Malpensa Express train to Milan Centrale and connect with the fast train (Trenitalia.com) to Rome.

In Rome, book a hotel (at least 3 nights) between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon so you’re in a lively area in the evenings near restaurants in any direction.

Some Rome tour options are on my When In Rome Again blog post.

Take a morning train to Florence Santa Maria Novella and before exiting the station, leave your luggage for a small fee at the depot along the wall where you see the sign for Track 16.

Florence in a day: You can’t miss the outdoor sculptures at the Piazza Vecchio, the fantastic embossed door of the Baptistry, museums galore, Pitti Palace, if the weather is lovely, catch the sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo for panoramic views of Florence and to say hello to yet another David statue.

Take the evening train to Venice Santa Lucia station and book an overnight stay at one of the hotel’s across the canal so they can hold your bags while you sightsee the next day.

Venice in a day: Catch the vaporetto to St. Mark’s Square and feed the pigeons, admire the golden mosaics of the cathedral, climb up the bell tower, shop a bit, walk to Rialto Bridge and if you’re an early bird, catch the vendors setting up shop at the open air market. If you haven’t had enough of churches and museums yet, there’s the Accademia, the Scuola Grande and the Doge’s Palace. If you’d rather row a gondola than sit in one, check out Row Venice.

Take the evening train to Milan and stay near the Golden Triangle of designer shopping (ie, Via della Spiga, Via Sant’ Andrea and Via Montenapoleone). You’ll be within easy walking distance to the very well preserved Sforza Castle that holds a good collection of museums.

Click on “Leave a Comment” (top left) to add your Italy travel tips.

xoxox

Ceiling at the Vatican

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Even a very tall man appears to be a midget at the mini-Hall of Mirrors of the Doria Pamphilj mansion in Rome

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Michaelangelo’s David and work in progress at the Accademia in Florence

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Rape of the Sabine Women at the Piazza Vecchio, Florence

italy-florence-sculpture-sharon-birke

Would you rather ride or row?

venice-gondola-sharon-birke

Sunset in Venice

venice-sunset

xoxox

Give the women you love the most unique gift

of elegant and timeless portraits

with  a Powerful Goddess portrait session Gift Certificate:

Buy Now Button with Credit Cards

© Sharon Birke

Managing Member, DoubleSmart LLC

201 697 1947

Sharon@PowerfulGoddess.com

www.PowerfulGoddess.com

Glamour Portraits of the Goddess in Every Woman

Hot As Mercury

I adore Chicago.

It is the pulse 

of America.

Sarah Bernhardt

The-Bean-Chicago-Powerful-Goddess-Portraits

Famous for it’s gigantic drop of liquid mercury, Chicago just won my vote for The Prettiest City in the U.S.!

You’ll love the river that snakes through dazzling skyscrapers, the helpful locals, and the ease of getting around and through the fabulous park set beautifully next to a lake. See the city in different ways:

Inside Chicago Tours Hillary is charming and funny as she takes you on small group walking tours of the city’s best building interiors and sssshhh! secrets.

Architecture River Cruise The Architecture Foundation’s First Lady Cruises will give you all the right facts. For more entertaining versions, try Shoreline and Jim Collins is one of the fun guides of Wendella boats. Choose the sunset cruise to see the lovely change of city lights.

Bobby’s Bike Hike Yes, you can stand on a Segway or sit in a cool limo. I like combining the distraction of interesting sights with a workout and a bike tour on a cool night is just perfect. Wednesday and Saturday evening tours end with spectacular fireworks on the lake.

Other evening entertainment:

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Chicago is the home of improv comedy so skip Broadway for this town’s longest running show of 30 mini plays in one hour. Mostly funny, sometimes poignant, sad and real. Not 21+ though the material can be.

Upstairs at the Virgin Hotel. I’ll have to come back without a teen chaperone to check out the fun at this naughty venue.

Fun restaurants with the family or not:

Three Arts Cafe Whether it’s your first date or the 100th, you’ll enjoy this romantic courtyard with chandeliers, a fountain and glass ceiling, indulgent service with a rooftop, too.

The Palm Court at The Drake Hotel Old world elegance for glamorous high tea after a day exploring the Gold Coast neighborhood. You can combine your tea reservation with a tour of the hotel on weekdays.

Fulton Market Kitchen Feed your inner artist with this feast for the eyes.

The Terrace Regardless of your politics, the Trump Hotel has the best open air views facing the river and half the Chicago skyline.

And if the kids insist on the Skydeck, mom must stop by the breathtaking atrium of the pink building next door.

The neighborhood you stay in makes all the difference and I suspect I adore Chicago because I chose a central location (between Clark Street Bridge and Millennium Park) for easy access to the city’s attractions, shopping and innumerable dining options.

Click on “Leave a Comment” (top left) to share your best Chicago travel tips here.

xoxox

Chicago-skyline-Powerful-Goddess-Portraits

Blonde-Glamour-Powerful-Goddess-Portraits

Cloud-Gate-Chicago-Powerful-Goddess-Portraits

Pearls-Red-Dress-Powerful-Goddess-Portraits

xoxox

Give the women you love the most unique gift

of elegant and timeless portraits

with  a Powerful Goddess portrait session Gift Certificate:

Buy Now Button with Credit Cards

© Sharon Birke

Managing Member, DoubleSmart LLC

201 697 1947

Sharon@PowerfulGoddess.com

www.PowerfulGoddess.com

Glamour Portraits of the Goddess in Every Woman

Myanmar Meander (Part II: Mandalay, Kalaw and Inle Lake)

Travel far enough,

you meet yourself.

David Mitchell

Too many fun things keep popping up that kept me from getting to this sequel sooner.  I’m off on another trip this week, always compelled to follow where joy leads me.  This summer has been particularly full of fun firsts. This year literally started on the right elephant’s foot!

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In the mountains of Kalaw, all is green, peace and quiet except for my occasional shrieks while on a  bareback elephant ride at Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp. Green Hill is a sanctuary for retired elephants (even their vet is a retiree) that also promotes reforestation with its tourism program. You get to feed and pet the elephants at their hut then scrub their thick hide as they soak in the river. And don’t you worry, riding them bareback is optional–only for the brave or the reckless. 😉

Selfie or not? Even the monks do it. At the U-Bein Bridge, the longest teakwood bridge in the world built in 1850 and still holding up to foot traffic.

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Mandalay, the last royal capital of the former Burma, has a romantic name that sounds infinitely more beautiful than its downtown area. The best parts of it are the hills dotted with stupas and temples and the sight of monks–men in burgundy robes, women in pink, all with shaved heads.

Mandalay is known as Motorcycle City among locals. I’ll remember it more for vans with passenger doors that open to oncoming traffic.

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The Shwenandaw Monastery, a glorious example of traditional 19th century wooden monasteries, is made of intricately carved teak.  Originally part of the Royal Palace in Amarapura, this building is also a fine example of recycling, dismantled and transported to Mandalay as the King’s living quarters when the capital city was moved in 1857, then moved a second time outside the Royal Palace grounds when his son succeeded the throne.

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In remote villages, life seems to have gone on largely unchanged for the past 2,500 years: peasants, oxcarts, the same kinds of food and clothes. The same pagodas covered in gold in the richer towns or merely painted in the poor ones. Cellphones are quickly becoming ubiquitous though.

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I bought a farmer’s umbrella not quite the size of this red giant, but ingeniously made completely of handmade paper and bamboo moving parts.

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There are 500,000 monks and 150,000 nuns in Myanmar—which is to say that a significant percent of the country aspire to follow the Buddha’s path. Most boys spend some years as monks before returning to their families. I met a couple of women who chose to join an order after they had already finished college and had worked on a career.

Busloads of tourists certainly don’t make studying easy for this little monk.

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As a tourist, you pick up some Buddhism along the way, getting a better understanding of the variety in religious structures. The pagoda or stupa (or zedi) is a solid structure with no interior that often contains a relic. A temple is a hollow square building. A cave serves as a meditation center for monks. The ordination hall is for exactly that. The monastery is the monks’ residence. The library is where scriptures of the Buddha are kept.

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Mornings in Myanmar often find bewitching mists hovering in the valleys and lakes.

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Inle Lake, in central Myanmar, is the region where locals  live on wooden houses on stilts, farm on floating patches of soil, bathe, brush their teeth,, do their laundry, commute, etc… all in the same water.  My fellow travelers asked our guide, “Where does the sewage go?” She doesn’t look us in the eye when she answered, “Septic tanks.”

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Aside from farming on floating patches of muck that are held in place by bamboo poles, industry in the lake includes boat making, weaving silk and lotus fiber, tobacco rolling, silver making, iron work, religious traffic, etc. A big gash in the mountainsides for new hotels represents the government’s ambition for a stronger surge of tourism. How will the lake’s ecosystem support such deluge? Beats me!

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Stay at a lake front room of the Inle Resort or catch the sunset from their boat landing. The spa is absolutely stunning here!

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Inle Lake fishermen are an iconic sight standing at one end of their boats, gracefully paddling with just one leg to keep one hand free for the net and the other for the spear.

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The beauty of Myanmar is in considerable part a consequence of its inaccessibility. Get there before it becomes more mainstream and lose its unique charms. Best month to catch a tour group is February.

Moi in their traditional wrap.

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Click on “Leave a Comment” (above left) to add your exotic travel tips.

xoxox

Give the women you love the most unique gift of elegant and timeless portraits

with a Powerful Goddess portrait session Gift Certificate:

Buy Now Button with Credit Cards

 Sharon Birke

201 697 1947

Sharon@PowerfulGoddess.com

www.PowerfulGoddess.com

Glamour Portraits of the Goddess in Every Wife & Mother

At the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum

You can’t connect the dots looking forward.

You can only connect them looking backwards.

So trust that your dots will connect in the future.

Steve Jobs

NYC-Cooper-Hewitt-museum-family-poster-Sharon-Birke

Benker & Steiner 1996 poster on the beleaguered patriarch

What museum allows you to photograph and assemble a webpage of your favorites among their exhibits? Encourages interactive fun for design inspiration? Has the stairs of a London Bus wedged into a mansion’s grand staircase?  New York City’s Cooper Hewitt checks “Yes” to all these and more! Even my difficult-to-please teen says he’ll save his ticket stub to remember our visit. Next time the heat gets unbearable this summer, hit this cool destination with your favorite young adults!

Click on “Leave a Comment” (above left) to share your fun family ideas in/around NYC this summer.

xoxox

In the mood to design a hat, a chair, a building? Possibilities can be endless here…

NYC-Cooper-Hewitt-museum-interactive-design-Sharon-Birke

Extrusions 2009 by Heatherwick Design Studios.

A metal bench inspired by the toothpaste you squeeze out of a tube.

NYC-Cooper-Hewitt-museum-extrusion-bench-design-Sharon-Birke

My kind of grand staircase model, but, boy, would I hate forgetting something in my bedroom upstairs!

NYC-Cooper-Hewitt-museum-grand-staircase-design-Sharon-Birke

An artwork from the more glamorous days of luggage airline tags.

NYC-Cooper-Hewitt-museum-travel-poster-design-museum-Sharon-Birke

A functional chair that lets you spin like a top.

NYC-Cooper-Hewitt-museum-spin-chair-design-Sharon-Birke

Next two photos, a dress that folds itself neatly soon as you drop it onto the floor. Every mom’s dream!

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Did I say we love the Cooper Hewitt?

Go on weekdays to enjoy the “Immersion Room” for more than the 5 minutes you’re allowed when there’s a crowd. Draw a single object and the projector will multiply it across two walls. Lucky my teen was game to plaster himself amidst his heart pattern.

I-love-NYC-Cooper-Hewitt-design-museum-Sharon-Birke

See my collection of Cooper Hewitt exhibit favorites at

http://cprhw.tt/v/n42f

Happy Summer!

xoxox

Give the women you love the most unique gift of elegant and timeless portraits

with a Powerful Goddess portrait session Gift Certificate:

Buy Now Button with Credit Cards

 Sharon Birke

201 697 1947

Sharon@PowerfulGoddess.com

www.PowerfulGoddess.com

Glamour Portraits of the Goddess in Every Wife & Mother

 

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