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The Panama Canal aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

It was Roger who began browsing Panama Canal brochures. I wasn’t so sure. We had been through locks before and equatorial temperatures sizzle any time of year.

But we had so enjoyed on our transatlantic cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2 that I booked a cruise on her sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, assuming I would, at least, enjoy the onboard experience. Little did I know all that was in store.

Pre-cruise
We like to arrive near the port a day or two before a cruise to enjoy what the area has to offer, avoid concerns about flight delays, and begin our cruise well rested. There are two cruise ports in the Los Angeles area. The Queen Elizabeth sailed from San Pedro. We stayed in the nearby Long Beach to immerse ourselves in Cunard history.

We stayed aboard Cunard’s historic Queen Mary, now docked and serving as a hotel in Long Beach.

For more on our experience and  the history of these ocean liners see our story on the Queen Mary.

There’s a free shuttle that runs from the Queen Mary to the attractions of the city, so in addition to touring the ship we visited the Aquarium of the Pacific, one of the top aquariums in the country.

divers at the Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach
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divers at the Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach

As it turned out, our sailaway was a special one that included a Royal Rendezvous with the Queen Mary,  complete with fireworks.

Aboard the Queen Elizabeth

Cunard's Queen Elizabeth in Curaçao
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Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in Curaçao

The first thing we noticed when we entered the Grand Lobby of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth was the sweeping staircase and impressive two-story marquetry mural of a cruise liner. The exotic veneers and Art Deco details reminded us of our pre-cruise stay aboard the legendary Queen Mary, which was renowned for its exotic woods from throughout the British empire.

lobby of Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
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lobby of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

The mural was designed by David Linley, son of Princess Margaret and nephew of Queen Elizabeth II, whose portrait overlooks this impressive space.

portrait of Queen Elizabeth in lobby of Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
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portrait of Queen Elizabeth in lobby of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

The choice of artists, interior decor, and style of the ship is typical of Cunard’s distinctive British heritage. Queen Elizabeth II toured the ship the day before passenger service began.

Royal Court Theater aboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
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Royal Court Theater aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

There’a a refined atmosphere, ideal for those who enjoy dressing up for dinner, catching a show in a classic theater, musical entertainment, or attending enrichment activities.

Passengers can dance the night away at elegant balls, take dance lessons, or catch a professional dance performance in the Queens Room.

dance performance in the Queens Room Ballroom
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dance performance in the Queens Room Ballroom

Cunard’s earlier ships had separate public areas for each of the three ticketed classes. The only difference in access today is in the dining room assignment, which continues to be based on the level of the stateroom or suite.

Dining

Britannia Dining Room of Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
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Britannia Dining Room of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

Most people–those in inside, oceanview, and most balcony staterooms — dine in the two-tiered Britannia Restaurant, which offers early or late seating assignments.

Britannica Club Room of Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
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Britannica Club Room of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

Britannica Club Room of Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
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Britannica Club Room of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

Since we were in a Club Balcony Stateroom, we ate in the adjacent and more intimate Britannia Club.

The menu is identical to the Britannia Dining Room, but there is an assigned table available throughout dining hours. Tables for two are quite popular. Opting to sit with a larger group can make for a most enjoyable international dining experience with other English-speaking guests.

crab appetizer in the Britannia Club dining room
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crab appetizer in the Britannia Club dining room

escargot, Britannia Club dining room
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escargot, Britannia Club dining room

beef and lobster, Britannia Club dining room
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beef and lobster, Britannia Club dining room

cherries jubilee in the Britannia Club dining room
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cherries jubilee in the Britannia Club dining room

Those in the luxurious Princess Grill or Queen’s Grill Suites dine in private grand glass-walled rooms by the same name to which we did not have access. These are perched high on the ship and have sweeping views. Food and service is said to be some of the best at sea. There’s a private lounge and concierge to tend to every need.

Asian buffet, Lido Restaurant, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
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Asian buffet, Lido Restaurant, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

sushi bar at the Lido Restaurant
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sushi bar at the Lido Restaurant

The Lido Restaurant offers casual buffet dining or a between meal or late night snack. Dining alternatives include specialty restaurants — Jasmine for Pan-Asian specialties, Asado for South American Grill, and Aztec for a Mexican meal in a designated area of the Lido Restaurant ($10 surcharge applies).

poolside hamburgers and hot dogs aboard the Queen Elizabeth
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poolside hamburgers and hot dogs aboard the Queen Elizabeth

A casual meal is available poolside.

Golden Lion Pub aboard the Queen Elizabeth
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Golden Lion Pub aboard the Queen Elizabeth

Golden Lion Pub aboard the Queen Elizabeth
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Golden Lion Pub aboard the Queen Elizabeth

fish and chips aboard the Queen Elizabeth
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fish and chips aboard the Queen Elizabeth

There’s also a pub for traditional favorites.

Yet another traditional British gastronomic experience is available afternoons.

white glove service at Afternoon Tea aboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
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white glove service at Afternoon Tea aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

For a more formal ambience, afternoon tea in the elegant Queen’s Room is served ceremoniously with live music, usually a harpist or stringed quartet.

Verandah Restaurant, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
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Verandah Restaurant, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

The ship’s finest dining venue should be experienced at least once. The award-winning Verandah Restaurant is modeled after the First Class restaurant by the same name on the original Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary.

painting in Verandah Restaurant, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth, a replica of the one in the original restaurant
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painting in Verandah Restaurant, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, a replica of the one in the original restaurant

Ingredients are sourced in France to create French-inspired dishes that are impeccably prepared and ceremoniously presented with a level of unpretentious service that sets the standard for the rest.

A modest à la carte surcharge applies. For the ultimate experience, a wine pairing tasting menu of the best onboard is hosted by the Chief Sommelier and Executive Chef for $150 per person.

Verandah Restaurant, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
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Verandah Restaurant, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

pigeon in chocolate dome in the Verandah Restaurant
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pigeon in chocolate dome in the Verandah Restaurant

It’s not surprising that Cunard won the Cruise International 2012 Award “Best for Food” and was highly commended as Best for Learning.

There were opportunities each day to learn something new. Talks on art appreciation were held in the Queens Room.

Insights Lectures

We knew that Cunard brings in top-notch speakers pertinent to the destinations for its Insights Enrichment Programme, and this was no exception. The port lecturer had helpful information on both independent options and Cunard shore excursions to make the most of the day in port.

Film producer and Variety editor Peter Bart shared stories about his movie making experiences and Felicity Aston spoke about her Arctic and Antarctic adventures.

Film producer and Variety editor Peter Bart
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Film producer and Variety editor Peter Bart

and Richard Cowley brought the history of the regions we passed to life–all in the elegant Royal Court Theater.

Richard Cowley, What volcanoes did for us lecture
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Richard Cowley, What volcanoes did for us lecture

A highlight was the presentations on the Panama Canal by Bob McMillan, author of Global Passage: Transformation Of Panama And The Panama Canal.

Bob McMillan, former Chairman of the Board of the Panama Canal Commission
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Bob McMillan, former Chairman of the Board of the Panama Canal Commission

His insider’s views on the Canal and its politics allowed us to see the canal from an enlightened perspective and he narrated our transit through the canal. Named to the Board of the Panama Canal Commission by President George H. W. Bush in 1989, McMillan became its Chairman in 1993. Mr. McMillan had been on the board just a month when the United States invaded Panama to depose Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. The canal has been closed just three times–for an avalanche, a Japanese ship accident, and when Noriega was overthrown.

Bob McMillan presentation on the Panama Canal
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Bob McMillan presentation on the Panama Canal

He discussed why the French, who built the Suez Canal, could not repeat their success Panama, why Theodore Roosevelt became involved, and how the United States was able to succeed. We enjoyed his commentary on the Carter-Torrijos Treaty of 1978 granting Panamanian control, and the Chinese-owned port facilities at each end, and the influence of a Nicaraguan volcano on the eventual site of the canal.

Bob McMillan on Nicaragua as a location for the canal
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Bob McMillan on Nicaragua as a location for the canal

He told us about a website where we could see lapse-time photographs of the ship in the canal. We were too interested in the scenery during our transit to go online, but our daughter, Kristi, watched our progress and captured images from her home.

The Panama Canal Transit

sunrise just before our northbound transit of the Panama Canal
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sunrise just before our northbound transit of the Panama Canal

We awakened early to see a panorama of ships silhouetted against the glow of sunrise in the morning mist. They were waiting their turns to pass through this shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

View Larger Map

We would be entering on the Pacific side, but because of the S-shape of the Isthmus of Panama, the entrance to the Panama Canal on the Pacific side is actually farther east than the one on the Atlantic side. The Pacific to Atlantic transit is referred to as northbound and the Atlantic to Pacific route is known as southbound.

The canal is just 9° North of the equator, and even at dawn it was hot and humid. We couldn’t help thinking of the all the workers who died of accidents, malaria and yellow fever in what was then a mosquito-infested jungle. They could hardly have imagined the luxurious conditions that cruise passengers enjoy today.

The canal was one of the world’s most challenging construction projects, and when it was completed in 1914 it reduced the journey for ships that would otherwise have gone around Cape Horn by over 8,000 miles.

passengers in the Commodore Club aboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth in the Panama Canal
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passengers in the Commodore Club aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in the Panama Canal

It takes eight to ten hours to pass through the nearly fifty mile long canal. Initially, the canal was open only during daylight hours, but fluorescent lighting added in 1963 made round-the-clock operation possible. We had the good fortune to be entering in the early morning for a completely daylight transit.

The Queen Elizabeth is a Panamax ship, which means it is the largest size that can pass through the canal. As we approached it appeared impossible to fit into the locks.

The ship uses its own power and is guided through the canal by electric towing locomotives known as lock mules (mulas).

It is connected to the locomotives by cables that keep it from hitting the lock’s walls. While in the Engine Room during the ship’s Behind the Scenes Tour we learned that ships must be built with a round opening especially designed for these cables in order to transit the Panama Canal.

Three sets of locks raise the ship 85’ to Gatun Lake, which was created to make construction and operation of the canal easier, then lower the ship back down again.

While we relaxed with an idyllic view of the lake’s tropical islands the captain made an announcement and we aimed our cameras. Crocodiles were swimming on the starboard side.

Panama Canal/Gatun Lake crocodiles
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Panama Canal/Gatun Lake crocodiles

The size and number of ships wanting to use the canal has increased so much that a massive project construction a third lane is underway. It should be complete in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the canal, and will accommodate even longer and wider post-Panamax size ships.

Other ports of call

Our other stops along this 18 day cruise were in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Florida.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Puerto Vallarta has been a popular tourist destination since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton bought a house there in 1964 after the filming of The Night of the Iguana. A taxi ride from the port–$5 each for four of us–took us to the Old Town, a colorful dance performance, and the cafés and vendors along El Malecon, the oceanfront walkway. The return taxi was $8 for all.

statues along El Malecon, Puerto Vallarta
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statues along El Malecon, Puerto Vallarta

 jewelry vendor along El Malecon, Puerto Vallarta
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jewelry vendor along El Malecon, Puerto Vallarta

hammocks for sale, Puerto Vallarta
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hammocks for sale, Puerto Vallarta

Cunard's Queen Elizabeth departs Puerto Vallarta
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Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth departs Puerto Vallarta

The heat intensified as we headed south, and passengers enjoyed the pool.

We opted for air-conditioned coach tours in the next two ports.

San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

Local dancers and musicians performed at the port in the fishing village of San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua.

Colorful horse-drawn carriages were available for rides through town. Vendors displayed a variety of wares–embroidered dresses, leather goods, colorful fabrics, cigars, and ceramics were neatly displayed for sale.

 horse and carriage at port, San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua
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horse and carriage at port, San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

 leather handbags, San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua
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leather handbags, San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

colorful fabrics, San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua in port
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colorful fabrics, San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua in port

cigars,San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua in port
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cigars,San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua in port

Nicaraguan pottery for sale at the port
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Nicaraguan pottery for sale at the port

People lingered over $1 beers at the beachside cafés.

Nicaraguan horse and carriage in San Juan del Sur
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Nicaraguan horse and carriage in San Juan del Sur

In the heat of the afternoon we rode an air conditioned coach through the countryside, passing handmade stands overflowing with tropical fruits and watching for howler monkeys in the trees.

Costa Rican roadside fruit stand
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Costa Rican roadside fruit stand

howler monkey in trees, Nicaragua
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howler monkey in trees, Nicaragua

We stopped to see the pride of a colonial village, its centuries-old church, as people rode by on small horse-drawn wagons.

Pedicab rides were offered outside the church.

We headed for Lake Nicaragua.

There are over fifty volcanoes in Nicaragua, which is known as the Land of Lakes and Volcanos. We rode past lush vegetation and fruit trees to Lake Nicaragua and a classic view of two of them.

We stopped at La Mar Lake Resort, owned by former Major League pitcher Dennis Martinez, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles, Montreal Expos, Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, and Atlanta Braves and was the first Nicaraguan player in the major leagues.

We enjoyed a cold beverage and fresh fruit while we watched a local dance performance.

Nicaraguan dancers at La Mar Lake Resort
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Nicaraguan dancers at La Mar Lake Resort

There was plenty of time to enjoy the view of the volcanoes.

Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Puntarenas was a flourishing port back when coffee was brought there by colorfully painted oxcarts that traveled along mountain trails.

colorfully painted oxcart, Costa Rica
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colorfully painted oxcart, Costa Rica

The day in port is best spent by taking  one of the ship’s excursions into the countryside.

We traveled a scenic road along the Pan-American Highway to the noticably-cooler highlands for a tour of a coffee plantation.

Pan American Highway, Costa Rica
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Pan American Highway, Costa Rica

homes near a coffee plantation in the highlands of Costa Rica
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homes near a coffee plantation in the highlands of Costa Rica

Along the way there is a stop at a souvenir shop that has clean rest rooms and a butterfly garden in the back. We were able to get a photo of the Costa Rican Blue Morpho, so named because it can close its wings to show only the brown color of the outer side when it wants to provide camouflage. It is quite a challenge to get a photo of the lovely blue side.

Costa Rican Blue Morpho butterfly
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Costa Rican Blue Morpho butterfly

Curaçao

The temperature is balmy and around 80∘year-round in Curaçao, an island off the coast of Venezuela. Colorful Dutch-style gabled houses from the 17th century line the streets of Willemstad, the capital and port city of this constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the southern portion of the Caribbean Sea.

Paved walkways lead pasts vendors to the colorful town.

The best place to sip some of its signature orange-flavored Blue Curaçao is at one of the waterfront cafés, where you can watch people cross the Queen Emma Pedestrian Bridge.

Queen Emma Pedestrian Bridge, Curaçao
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Queen Emma Pedestrian Bridge, Curaçao

A ferry links the two sides of Willemstad when the bridge is moved for boats to pass by. There didn’t seem to be a limit on the number of passengers onboard.

aboard the Willemstad ferry, Curacao
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aboard the Willemstad ferry, Curacao

Streets are lined with shops, from little art galleries to large designer stores.

The most colorful area is where the Venezuelan fisherman sell their fish and produce.

Venezuelan fishing boats, Willemstad, Curaçao
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Venezuelan fishing boats, Willemstad, Curaçao

fruits and vegetables on boats from Venezuela
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fruits and vegetables on boats from Venezuela

Jovial merchants from Venezuela sell produce or fish from small their boats at the nearby floating market.

Venezuelan fishing boat, Curaçao
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Venezuelan fishing boat, Curaçao

The cannonball imbedded in Fort Amsterdam’s wall was fired by Captain Bly‘s ship, the Bounty, in 1804.

There’s a unique natural environment aquarium, and you might spot an iguana or long-nosed bat on a tour of Hato Caves. Escaped slaves used to hide here, and Amerindian Arawaks left petroglyphs.

Grand Cayman

The island is known as a banking haven for the super-rich, but most visitors to this British Crown Colony head for the sun and parasailing at Seven Mile Beach, the black limestone formations in the nearby village of Hell, or the Turtle Farm where green sea turtles are farmed for local food and conservation.

A boat trip goes to to Stingray City, where divers and snorkelers can feed tame stingrays in 12’ deep water. The island’s finest flora is found at Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park.

In town, there’a a colorful fish market.

Fort Lauderdale

Those on tours to places like the Everglades or Miami disembarked first, and we waited until the crowds had passed through the painfully slow U.S. Immigration lines to take the complimentary shuttle to an upscale mall.

cars outside mall restaurant, Fort Lauderdale
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cars outside mall restaurant, Fort Lauderdale

It’s a short walk from there to the Water Taxi, where for $20 you can hop on and off all day.

The Sun Trolley (50₵ per ride or $2 all day) in front of the mall is an inexpensive way to get to the beach and around the city.

Our sail away included a spectacular sunset.

Our adventure aboard Cunard‘s Queen Elizabeth was about to end in New York, but not without a grand finale. We sailed in to the busy harbor as the sun began to rise.

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, New York City
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Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, New York City

The torch of the Statue of Liberty was aglow, the skyline of Manhattan came to life, and we docked by the Space Shuttle Enterprise and British Airways’ Concorde at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum.

Space Shuttle Enterprise and Concorde at Intrepid Museum, New York City
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Space Shuttle Enterprise and Concorde at Intrepid Museum, New York City

Space Shuttle Enterprise and Concorde at Intrepid Museum, New York City
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Space Shuttle Enterprise and Concorde at Intrepid Museum, New York City

It was a fitting finale to a trip that had been out of this world.

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