“Nobody Can Say!”: The “Roda” That Is Capoeira Arguments

7 07 2008

“There is only one thing a philosopher can be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other philosophers.”

Capoeira is like philosophy. And I don’t mean it’s like a philosophy, as in “the philosophy of capoeira”. Capoeira is like the entire field of philosophy—at least when it comes to the discussions.

Who can say?  Maybe somewhere in the stars...

It struck me shortly after I came back home and finally broke it to my capoeira group (read: teachers) that I’d been training with another group in France. (I’d kept it a secret during all of last year…slightly long story there. But I digress.) What I then found amusing (as well as not so amusing) about the whole thing was how each side of the pond so readily disdained the other, even though I love and esteem both. And they all have their not-unreasonable explanations, including for why they’re each superior to a separate third group—who, I have no doubt, considers itself better than my two!

As one of my teachers pointed out, “…and it’s all opinion anyway! Maybe you think this capoeira group is better, but I think that capoeira group is better. Everyone has their own preference.” Most capoeiristas recognize this, yet many capoeira groups still claim, for one reason or another, to be the best (or at least pretty darn up there). It’s funny because with every capoeira group touting their own superiority, their claims kind of all cancel each other out, and so in the end it comes right back down to personal opinion anyway. After all, at least when it comes to capoeira style and capoeira philosophy, nobody can say!

Similarly, about a week later, I got into a conversation about fights breaking out in capoeira, and capoeiristas who “play” really to fight other group’s capoeiristas, and ended up saying something like, “It’s not capoeira!” (Since “just dancing” isn’t capoeira, so it’s okay to say “just fighting” isn’t capoeira either, right?) After I said that though, another one of my capoeira teachers ended it with the inevitable line: “But what is capoeira? Nobody can say.”

And therein lies the crux of the whole thing. Capoeira reminds me of philosophy because no matter how much capoeiristas—like philosophers—talk and discuss and debate and rationalize their respective arguments, you can almost never come to any ultimate conclusion because—who can say?! What can be proven?? No one capoeirista has enough authority or knowledge to decide for all, and for better or worse, Newton concentrated his efforts on gravity rather than capoeira when making his laws.

I think one of my friends from first-year put it best (paraphrased from memory): “The thing about philosophy [or in our case, capoeira] is that you can spend hours and hours talking and going through arguments and making your points, but in the end none of it matters because nobody can prove any of it anyway!”

Although that doesn’t quite work, either (clearly it matters some, or this blog wouldn’t exist!), I just found the irony or circularness (hence “roda”) of it all amusing. So sue me! 😛

Picture source (modified):
http://s272.photobucket.com/albums/jj161/masterplats3/





Brazil: The Father of Capoeira—or the Mother?

8 05 2008

Despite the title, this post is not exactly about how capoeira originated. It’s about something I heard recently, and wanted to…question? Correct? Mostly because I didn’t say anything at the time I heard it, and slightly kind of regret it now; so I’m saying it here!

Capoeira, the child of Africa and Brazil

I was at an event when a mestre (well, okay, my mestre) started talking about capoeira, and partway through he said, “Africa is the mother of capoeira…and Brazil is the father.” At this point there was a rippling of “oohhhhs” and laughter among the students, and a self-satisfied pause at his own joke. But I just wondered…why was that funny/how was it a joke? I thought making the comparison was fine (though inaccurate, as I’ll discuss shortly), but were people laughing because of the idea that Brazil “overpowered” Africa, or seized its flower of capoeira, or something? Because in that case, it really wouldn’t have been funny at all.

As for the comparison itself, first I thought it was fine (without the supposed-to-be-funny part), but thinking upon it further, I realized it was actually wrong. Assuming that the way, way-back roots of capoeira are from Africa (safe general statement #1) and that the actual sport/art as we know it today came to flourish in Brazil (safe general statement #2), then…Africa is actually the father of capoeira, and Brazil is the mother.

Why? Think about it. (Note: This is going to be all based on stereotypes…since that’s how metaphors work.) Africa provided the seed of capoeira, but it was the environment in Brazil that nourished and raised capoeira (even if at one point Brazil actually tried to abort it, but you get what I mean…though even in that respect, to whom do abortions usually apply?). The genes and chromosomes of capoeira came from both Africa and Brazil, but it was inside Brazil where they actually combined and merged and grew into the fully-formed art of capoeira (or as fully-formed as a constantly changing and evolving art can get). The gestation period of capoeira took place in Brazil—that is, Brazil was the womb. And who has those?

So, with all due respect to the mestre…if one insists on making this particular comparison, it’d be more accurate to say that Africa was the father of capoeira, and Brazil the mother. Not the other way around. And that doesn’t mean Brazil is weaker than or has been subjugated by Africa. Just my two cents!

Picture source: http://masscapoeira.com/HistoryofCapoeira.html





Respect in Capoeira: How Much is Too Much?

2 05 2008

When it comes to respect—or rather, respecting hierarchy—in capoeira, how much is too much? How do you tell what is just capoeira, just context or politeness, and what is pure ridiculousness or taking things too far?

This post is slightly related to the “What is the Role of a Capoeira Mestre?” one, only looking at how students and mestres are specifically treated in capoeira groups. Before going on, I should clarify that in the headline, “respect” refers more to things done in the name of respect. There are two main issues here: 1) Just how much respect should be shown a mestre/mestra, and in what ways, before it goes too far? and 2) Respect in capoeira should go both ways.

1. Respecting Mestres

When your group’s mestre comes to town, how are they treated? Are they everyone’s pal, going around the room to shake every person’s hand, joking with beginners and graduadas alike, or is it as if your little academy village is hosting the Royal Entourage for a week, student serfs lining up to greet the king or queen, your normally alpha male and female teachers reduced to vassals and footrunners?

Eating before Mestre does feels weird/wrong…it’s not about protocol; it’s about respect.”

Although these are slightly two extremes (slightly), the examples I’ve seen are really not too far off. And seeing such contrasts makes me wonder if the concept of “royalty” has a place in capoeira at all, if it’s taking respect too far? For instance, I can understand that at a group meal in a restaurant, it would be polite and a sign of respect to let the mestre order first. However, is it still right if the mestre becomes engaged in an hour-long conversation, and his students are still not allowed to order until he does?

In another case, is it okay, right, or normal to expect that, during meals, a mestra sits there while a student or teacher fetches her food for her? Would it be considered too “plebian” for the mestra to get her food on her own, or is that just simple hospitality and accomodation on the part of the event’s host teacher?  It is not as if capoeira students would suddenly lose respect for a mestra who couldn’t snap her fingers and send people to fetch a drink or cutlery for her; in fact, the opposite is probably true.

How much “respect”, privilege, hospitality and accomodating at others’ expense, or going-out-of-one’s-way, is reasonable before one’s capoeira group could be mistaken for a cult of personality? And if the mestre or mestra comes to expect this attitude and attention, do they have the right to?

2. Respect is a two-way street.

In response to the questions above, some—or many—people would say that the mestre/mestra deserves it all, purely by virtue of what they have done and accomplished. I agree that they deserve respect and admiration for their accomplishments (provided that they are also good people who have managed to keep their feet on the ground), but there is a limit as well, and you will know when you’ve hit it by keeping in mind that simple respect between human beings should go both ways.

You know that saying, “My rights end where your rights begin”? I think the same concept applies here: “Respect” for high-ranking people in capoeira should end where disrespect for capoeira students begins.

“You wait for Mestre; Mestre doesn’t wait for you.”

For example, it is always stressed that students arrive on time for class, rodas, workshops, and events, and they usually get in trouble for being late. This is fair, makes sense, etc. Showing up on time shows you respect your teacher, the rest of the class, and everyone’s time, while being late implies you don’t (whether or not that is actually the case). Likewise, it’s fair enough to expect mestres and teachers will sometimes (or always) be late, especially during big capoeira events (read: logistical nightmares).

However, something is off when students are threatened with push-ups for being five minutes late so they show up on time, but then are kept waiting for 1-2 hours for the mestre to arrive so things can begin. I mentioned this to one of my non-capoeira friends the other day, and even then it didn’t hit me how extreme that actually is in the context of real life, until she stopped and stared at me in shock and possibly even a bit of horror.

Because it’s true, if you think about it—where or when else in life ever is it acceptable to keep someone waiting for 1-2 hours? I was an hour late for my friend once (ahh, it’s contagious!) and was actually almost scared to show up at all, because she was (rightly) in a more or less homocidal state by then, and in the end I baked her a batch of rice krispie squares to make it up to her. Has your mestre/mestra ever given you a batch of rice krispie squares for being 1-2 hours late? Come to think of it, have you even ever received so much as an apology?

“Yes in capoeira we have high belts and low belts and students and mestres, but outside of capoeira we’re all people, all human beings.”

If you think about it, making a group of people stand around waiting for 1-2 hours at every roda and event isn’t really a way of having them show extreme respect for the mestre, or it’s a completely unecessary way to show/ensure respect (and those who disagree need to ask themselves why their mestre is so insecure), but is really just blatant disrespect for the students and their time. Since we’re just lowly, star-struck capoeira students so obviously we have nothing else better to do in our lives than stand around waiting for two hours at a time.

Let’s see, that’s…dishes/laundry done and apartment cleaned, or half a book read, or half an afternoon’s work (and wages), or one blog post written, or one kid’s doctor’s appointment, or one or two job applications, or an exam crammed for, or a short date with your boyfriend/girlfriend, or a thesis outlined, or taxes done, or a car fixed…the list goes on. But of course, none of that is important if it means you’ll be on time for Mestre/Mestra, even if they have absolutely no compunction to even try being anywhere near on time themselves.

Moreover, late students don’t matter because the mestre/mestra doesn’t have to wait at all; they have every right to start the roda once they arrive, and too bad for the late students. However, it doesn’t work the other way around because students aren’t allowed to start the roda on their own.

Yes, a mestre/mestra probably does have dibs over students on not being kept waiting, but in fact, neither side should be expected to wait as long as capoeira students often are. Mestres and students should respect each other’s time. This is just one example of two-way respect in capoeira (or lack thereof) that I’ve gone into pretty deeply here, but I’m sure there are others.

“…as always, a lack of respect by teachers for their young students…”

All of the pull-quotes in this post are things I’ve heard said in capoeira, and this last one struck me for such an important reason that I felt compelled to write about it: it was the first and only time in my two and a half years of doing capoeira that I’d EVER heard someone talk about students in capoeira needing to be respected, instead of needing to respect.

That was definitely a wake-up call for me, and what inspired a lot of the other thoughts in this post.

Students have a responsibility to respect their teachers and mestres, but don’t mestres have a responsibility back to their students? Even if the capoeira world is slightly off-kilter from the “normal” world, aren’t we all still entitled to the same common courtesty and simple respect? Because the last time I checked, capoeira students are people, and mestres/mestras are people, too.





Perspective in Capoeira: Falling Behind on the Journey

16 04 2008

How much does it matter? Does it matter? Why?

Normally, people love what they are good at; conversely, you are usually good at what you love. Writers write, actors act, graphic designers design graphics, and soccer players play soccer. Academics excel in academics, and mechanics know their mechanisms. Passion and motivation are all you need to carry yourself to great heights in what you love, at least according to Chicken Soup for the Soul, et al.

What perspective do you take on capoeira?Of course, capoeira, being the malicious trickster it is, doesn’t care what Chicken Soup or the rules say. That’s one of the things that I always thought was awesome about capoeira; you didn’t necessarily have to be good at it to feel like you were getting somewhere, and anyone could fall victim to “capoeira fever” (to quote a friend), whether they were a beginner or athletic or not.

But after a certain point, sucking at something you love kind of…well…sucks. This is what’s been bothering me lately, and where perspective comes in, but first, some background: My friends and I have been training at different places for the past eight months due to geography, and seeing one of them this past weekend made it very, very obvious that we’ve been progressing at devastatingly different rates. I can’t do half—no, make that any of—the things they do, and I started a year before. I blame (rightly or not) where I’ve been training for not being hardcore enough in comparison to my old place, not intense enough, not pushing their students enough, but am blasting myself for the same things. It’s not like I haven’t been training (on the contrary, although I may as well not have been), but what if I’d pushed myself just that much harder each class, that much further, not let myself become that much more complacent?

And though I’m still upset, after talking to a non-capoeira friend about it, I also have to ask…why? Why do we get upset about capoeira if we still enjoy it while we’re doing it? Is there a point to it? Does it make our lives better?

On the one hand, this kind of dissatisfaction is good in the way that it can motivate you to really train harder and be determined to rev it up. (Although if you’re me, that in turn only leads to a sprained toe. Ah, irony, my dear old friend.) But if you put it into the context of your life overall…is there a point? If you enjoy capoeira and you enjoy going to class and training and playing in the roda, then can’t you just enjoy what you are doing, instead of getting upset about what you could be doing? That’s how I used to view capoeira. That is, I knew before I started that I wasn’t athletic at all and didn’t have much hope of really getting good, so my overall outlook every class was basically to not expect anything, so everything I did do was a happy surprise.

This also reminds me of what Xixarro said after “The Battle Between Capoeira and Everything Else“, about just enjoying capoeira while you’re there and not worrying about what’s not there (like extra time to train, or I guess in this case, actual capoeira skills).

But isn’t a capoeirista who doesn’t esquiva fast enough, kick high enough, can’t jump, has too little balance, not enough malícia, needs more control, hopeless at floreios (even if they are auxiliary, but definitely expected in my group, and the bar for them just keeps getting higher)…just like a writer who lacks vocabulary, spells things wrong, forgets punctuation, can’t structure paragraphs, and doesn’t even have very much to write about?

But again: if you enjoy it anyway, and doing capoeira makes your life better nevertheless…then does it matter?

p.s. In no way do I actually think this does not matter; I hate that my progress is practically non-existent and that I can’t do anything, especially while everyone else I know is zooming by on rocket-powered cordas. This is another “thought experiment” and just to see what other people, i.e. you guys, think. Or maybe you can convince me that it really does not matter and I should lighten up/stop thinking too much/look on the bright side/don’t worry?





Capoeira Without Borders: A Thought Experiment

2 03 2008

Doctors Without Borders = freedom of health care.  Reporters Without Borders = freedom of speech.  Engineers Without Borders = freedom of technological development.  Capoeira Without Borders = ???

What would a world of capoeira without borders be like? 

Yesterday’s post got me thinking more about the comparison I made between countries and capoeira groups, and then I remembered the title I was going to give the post originally: “Capoeira Without Borders”.  To expand on this idea, what would it be like if there were no borders between capoeira groups, and capoeiristas could come and go as they pleased?  Let’s imagine…

First of all, capoeira students would have an amazing number of opportunities open to them.  They would learn more and different techniques and styles of play, even without leaving the categories of regional, angola, benguela, or contemporânea.  Each capoeirista’s personal game and style would be completely unique, based on their particular combination of with whom they trained, how often, for how long, and what they in particular gained from each group.  They would have more flexibility schedule-wise, if classes from every local group were open to them, or during holidays if some academies closed while others remained open.

The potential for “bad blood” between groups might be reduced, and groups as a whole would grow closer to one another as their respective students would mix, mingle, and bond, more often and to a greater extent than they would otherwise (or at all).  On the other hand, more interaction between more people might also increase the potential for drama and more of the same.  Although, this would also depend on how much of a “my group your group” mentality students retained after the eradication of “borders”.

Similarly, the amount of politics between mestres of different groups might decrease, as their students could openly and legitimately train with one, the other, or both simultaneously, at any time.  Then again, politics might rise to a more feverish pitch if mestres decided they had to work, coerce, or manipulate harder to retain students/students’ loyalties due to the complete freedom they now have to come and go as they please.

From a growth and expansion point of view, this would actually be a nightmare for grupos as they would have much more difficulty establishing cores of students and knowing who they could rely on, to show up for training, for rodas, and for events.  On the flip side, they could also have bigger events—seeing as each event would be open to every capoeirista in the world who’s interested—and they would have larger labour/volunteer pools to help with the event or other things, since people outside of their immediate groups would also be included.

Finally, in terms of the actual capoeira, group styles would evolve at much higher rates, seeing as everyone from other groups or who was training with other groups would bring what they had learned to class and into every roda.  At the same time, group styles could be “corrupted” by unwanted methods or techniques from other groups brought in by their or other students.

These are all the possible effects I can think of so far; feel free to add more scenarios in the Comments!  Even if this isn’t going to happen anytime soon (or, okay, ever), it never hurts to exercise your imagination once in a while. 😉

Picture source: http://www.cafepress.com/pcpremium.11583050

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Think Global, Play Local: Broadening Your Capoeira Horizons

1 03 2008

Capoeira is international.  Are you?  

Something that has periodically amazed me is that from time to time, when I’ve tried capoeira in other places (such as at last week’s batizado in Amsterdam), it seems as if I’d never left home, and was still in a class with my own group, my own teachers. These feelings usually swell, like bubbles, during lectures or talks about various aspects of capoeira.

Think global, play local; capoeira can be found all around the globeIt doesn’t matter if you’re at a British, German, or Japanese roda; you still have to sing like a Tenor, gauge your battles like a Spartan, and converse (joga-wise) like characters in a 19th century murder mystery. Likewise, it matters not whether it’s boomed out (like a death sentence) in French, English, or Portuguese: the phrase “deux par deux” (dois par dois, two by two, whatever) will always increase my blood pressure, exact a groan, and have me looking for a good nearby rock to hide under.

My point is, incredible as it is, I’d never thought of capoeira being literally international in this way before. Obviously, I knew it came from Brazil and had spread all over the world, and my own group has many international branches, but it wasn’t until I’d heard words from my first teachers’ mouths repeated in the same way, but in a different language, that it really hit me.

It amazed me because just like how I felt capoeira changes but fundamentally stays the same throughout time, it seems this applies for capoeira throughout space as well—that is, geography. Capoeira in Brazil is capoeira in Turkey is capoeira in Australia. This is lucky for us, since there is still much to be gained by trying some of each, which brings me to the post’s title.

In the world of environmental action, “think global, eat local” is a movement to encourage people to consume more locally grown/produced food, in order to save on resources that would otherwise be spent transporting consumer products, such as gas and other fuels. More specifically, it is much more resource-conscious, thus environmentally and so thus globally conscious to eat steak from a cow raised on a farm just outside your city, than it is to chow down on ribs that were imported from, say, Mexico, based on the amount of energy and resources it took to get that particular food from its starting place onto your table.

This may be a bit of a stretch, but in a way I think that concept can apply to capoeiristas as well, while travelling or having to relocate to other places for any reason. Say you’ve just moved to a new city, or country, and you have two choices for continuing your capoeira training: drive or take a train four hours out to another city once a week or less to train with the “local” branch of your own group, or start taking truly local classes, from another group. By trying the latter, you are not only truly immersing yourself in your new locale (while saving time, money, and resources), but afterwards you will become more globally conscious capoeira-wise, as well. You will see how different grupos and different cultures do and view things, and in the end it can only contribute to your experience and growth as a capoeirista.

Please note, though, that in no way am I advocating group-jumping here. If there is a local branch of your group in your new city, then you’re really lucky and definitely stick with them; you will still experience a new culture, if not a new group’s philosophy and way of doing things. “Think global, play local” for me doesn’t mean jumping groups for the sake of it, but just not shying away from exposing yourself to different groups when circumstances and opportunity intersect in the right way. The idea isn’t to replace or mix up your “group roots” and style/foundations, but to supplement or garnish them with new ideas and perspectives.

In a way, being in a capoeira group could be compared to being the citizen of a country. You grow up in your own culture and learn all its ways, and patriotism is usually expected, though in varying degrees. However, your worldview as a person would be deeply stunted if you never travelled or saw anything or interacted with anyone outside of your own country, or even state/province or city/town/village. (Think deep south USA.)

Sure, there are books and newspapers, but just like while someone in North America or Europe might know what’s going on in the Middle East but doesn’t know the Middle East, a capoeirista can hear or read about other capoeira techniques and philosophies, but it is only by actually encountering and experiencing them that you gain the value of truly broadening your horizons. And, just like in the real world, travelling to other nations doesn’t always necessarily mean you intend to become an ex-pat!





Battle of the Titans: The Internal Struggle between Capoeira and…Everything Else

10 02 2008

When it comes to capoeira, there is no doubt that the more you train, the better.  In a perfect world, we would all get to train capoeira as much as we wanted to (or needed to), as often as we could, and simultaneously stay on top of everything else going on in our lives—school, career, relationships, etc. (and get full nights’ worth of sleep while we were at it!).  Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.  So, what happens when these two giants in your life (“capoeira” and “everything else”) clash for your time and energy?

Capoeiristas play capoeira.  And everything else?

On the one hand, it seems there’s just no help for it.  As crazy as I am about capoeira, I’m not about to blow a great career opportunity or cut an important class for one session of training (manipulating my course timetable to work around training, however, is a different matter 😉 ).  I know of at least one or two people who have a really hard time training not even nearly as much as they would like, due to exacting careers or studies, and I always wonder, what will happen for me in the future?  At one point in time I was considering going to medical school after graduating, and upon hearing this someone said to me, not without reason: “You won’t be doing capoeira then!” 

The thing is, I always thought it had to be one or the other.  My grupo in particular has a very hardcore take on training and commitment, which I appreciate and wouldn’t want any other way, but which also really forces you to decide what the priorities in your life are.  Training time increases with corda rank, naturally, but by my second belt I was already training 5x/week, and anything less than daily for my teachers, not even graduados themselves (but still more than skilled/competent, of course), was rare.  To get even anywhere near becoming a mestra or mestre, it seemed, took not only a lifetime but quite indiscriminately a life, leaving no room for anything else.

This impression only strengthened when I read biographies of mestres, my grupo’s mestre, guest mestres, branched-off mestres, all of which related how pretty much the entire lives of all of these men were devoted to capoeira, leading to them becoming mestres, and as far as I know, their lives are still 100% devoted to purely capoeira, their academies, the growth of their schools, etc.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that; that’s not my point here, and capoeira can always use that kind of dedication, which merits admiration.

My point is: A short while ago, I experienced yet another “revelation”, connected to this and again mostly to do with capoeira angola.  I know it seriously seems like I’m about to defect to an angola group any day now (to those who might, don’t worry; I’m not!), but I had to share it.  This was the revelation:

  • Rosangêla de Araújo Costa: Mestra Janja of Grupo Nzinga and historian and university professor
  • Paula Cristina da Silva Barreto: Mestra Paulinha of Grupo Nzinga and sociologist and university professor
  • Paulo Barreto: Mestre Poloca of Grupo Nzinga and geographer
  • Pedro Moraes Trindade: Mestre Moraes of GCAP and public school teacher
  • Nestor Capoeira: Mestre and author and PhD alumnus
  • Marcia Treidler: Mestranda Cigarra of Abada Capoeira and founder/Artistic Director of ACSF (non-profit NGO)

As you can see, every one of these illustrious individuals is a superlative capoeirista, at the top of the corda ranks and at the top of their game, yet there is much more to their lives and careers than capoeira alone.  For them, it seems, substantial progress in capoeira (to say the least—they’re mestres!) and major non-capoeira commitments (e.g. post-grad degrees, career development) were not mutually exclusive concepts. 

So, firstly, where did my bedrock belief in the contrary come from?  My grupo’s “philosophy”?  My own insecurities?  (Speaking of which, I should make it clear here that I have no plans, intentions, hopes or expectations of becoming a mestra, ever, but everything I said still applies to the idea of advancing through belt levels in capoeira in general, which is the part that applies to me!)

And secondly, what currents cause growing capoeiristas, potential mestras/mestres-to-be, to sail one way or the other?  Regarding the people listed above, I want to know: How did they do it?  Or how were they “allowed” to do it, to take the time they must have needed to accomplish their other goals, yet have trained enough and been recognized as dedicated enough to be deemed mestras?  Perhaps, as I think is in some cases, their other achievements were accomplished after the fact, when they had already earned the mestre/a corda and was then released from the training pressure of a normal student (although I can imagine a whole new set of pressures coming in to replace that!).  Perhaps, as is also likely, their grupos had different “philosophies”, more conducive to the simultaneous success of non-capoeira pursuits just as considerable as the capoeira one.  Or maybe they really did go “capoeira-lite” for a while, reached the moon, then came back, caught up, and re-donned the capoeira horse-blinders.

In any case, I found this particular “revelation” to be very heartening and encouraging (even inspiring), and I have so much admiration for capoeiristas like Mestra Janja and Mestranda Marcia.  Perhaps there’s room in the world for a martelo-throwing rasteira-sneaking newsbreaking world-changing difference-making writer-publisher-journalist-capoeirista after all. 😛

Picture source:
http://www.capoeira.org.nz/index.php/item/258

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