One of my favorite leisure activities is taking long walks at night while listening to audio books. I read a lot of paper books too, but there’s something about walking outdoors with a million stars overhead that makes a good story that much more enjoyable. (And now that I no longer live near Los Angeles, I can actually see the million stars.) The images my mind calls up are more vivid when I listen to books at night. Perhaps walking in the dark puts me in a bit of a trance.

Over the weekend, I finished a gem of first-person story titled Kabloona: Among the Inuit, written by a French adventurer who lived and traveled with nomadic Eskimos (as he called them) for a 15-month span in 1938 and 1939.

Gontran de Poncins was an aristrocrat who became bored with the business world and remade himself as a traveling journalist-adventurer. In Kabloona he makes references to his other adventures in Tahiti and New Caledonia, but soon assures the reader that the Arctic is the toughest and most unforgiving place he’s ever seen … incredibly cold, with flat, snow-covered tundra that seems to go on forever in every direction. Without knowing the nearly-imperceptible landmarks, an explorer could easily become disoriented and wander in circles until he froze to death – which Poncins nearly did on one occasion, despite being within a few miles of the trading post where he’d been staying.

Not surprisingly, this tough landscape was inhabited by very tough people, which is the main reason the book caught my interest. Initially, Poncins spent several months with Eskimos who traded furs with whites and had adopted some of the white man’s ways. (They seemed particularly fond of tea and tobacco, for which they happily traded foxes.) But Poncins was determined to also meet the “real” Eskimos — those who rarely if ever saw a white man and still mostly lived as their ancestors had lived. So he hired Eskimo guides to take him hundreds of miles into the interior of the Arctic, where the “real” Eskimos lived. It was this glimpse into the life of an almost-Paleolithic people that I was anticipating.

Frankly, much of that glimpse isn’t pretty, at least as Poncins recounts it. As a journalist writing in the 1930s, he felt no need to let political correctness or racial sensitivity color his descriptions, and early in the narrative much of what he recalls is his general disgust for Eskimos and Eskimo ways. Disparaging remarks such as “The Eskimo has no ability to plan ahead” and “the Eskimo isn’t capable of logical thinking” pop up frequently. So do remarks about the Eskimo’s “savage” habits and their apparent preference for living in poverty.

To be honest, even though I like the benefits of Paleolithic eating, I’m pretty sure I’d be similarly annoyed if I were surrounded by dinner companions who grunted as they tore raw meat with their teeth, gulped and slurped their meat as blood and grease dripped down their faces, then finished by tossing the bloody remnants and bones into a corner of the small igloo where I’d soon be sleeping.

But as the adventure unfolds, Poncins becomes progressively less disgusted with the Eskimos and more disgusted with himself with being so judgmental when he first encountered them. As he travels with his Eskimo guides, he’s amazed by their ability to locate and catch fish swimming beneath the ice, to sneak up seals, to quickly and efficiently cut snow into bricks and construct an igloo. He likens one Eskimo to a gifted architect when it comes to making igloos, with each snow brick cut to exactly the right size and shape so all the bricks fit tightly together in a dome.

He soon realizes it’s not such a bad idea to toss bloody seal guts into the corner of an igloo when you’ll abandon that igloo in a couple of days and move on. He even begins to appreciate the simplicity of living in a shelter that’s basically an icebox: catch your fish, toss them into the corner, and they’re preserved by the cold. Wake up, warm the fish with your hands and breath, then enjoy cold sushi for breakfast.

He’s also amazed by the endurance of the Eskimos. The nutritionists who parrot their textbook knowledge that “you need carbohydrates for energy!” should read this book. Poncins recounts running along trails with Eskimos for hours – he was fatigued and panting, while they barely seemed to notice the effort. After a year in the Arctic, Poncins finds he is beginning to prefer their diet, even though he had supplies of “white man” food on the sled carrying his belongings. As he explains in one passage, boiled rice could warm him up temporarily, but then he’d feel colder an hour or two later. By contrast, raw meat or raw fish was cold going down, but then he felt warmer for the rest of the day.

In the far northwest Arctic, Poncins eventually meets up with a priest who’d been living among the Eskimos for six years. The priest was a fellow Frenchman, and Poncins had brought him some “civilized” food as a gift – a block of cheese being the real prize. But the priest, Father Henry, politely explains that he’s lost his taste for civilized foods. He no longer likes rice, biscuits, or cheese. As Poncins writes, “He’d been living on nothing but caribou, seal and fish for six years, yet he was none the worse for it.”

It was during his time with Father Henry that Poncins began to appreciate the depth of his own ignorance about Eskimos. In one passage, Father Henry explains that Eskimo words have many shadings and subtleties, and that the way Poncins speaks the language, it sounds like he’s barking orders. Yes and no don’t mean yes and no, the priest explains, because the Eskimos don’t think in either-or terms. Both words, depending on how they’re said, could mean some degree of “maybe.”

Soon after that conversation, Poncins spots a group of Eskimos doing impressions of him and laughing themselves silly. He can’t help but laugh as well, and he recounts how they reproduced his robotic gestures as he gave commands, his obvious impatience, even his voice. As he writes, “These people had only just met me, but they imitated me perfectly.” It’s an eye-opening moment for Poncins: the people he’d initially considered savages consider him a fool – a white man, a Kabloona, someone with no sense of what’s actually important in life.

At this point in the story, I realized Poncins included the many disparaging remarks about Eskimos in the early chapters primarily so his readers could fully appreciate this moment … Remember all those nasty things I said earlier, dear reader? Now you know what a fool I truly was. I was a Kabloona.

By the end, Poncins no longer sees the Eskimos as savages living in poverty. He sees them as they see themselves: people living in a land that gives them everything. They can build a shelter in a matter of hours using the snow that’s all around them. The frozen waterways are highways for their sleds. The land provides them with fish and seals and herds of caribou.

Poncins is (or was) a gifted storyteller and often quite witty – which is impressive, considering he was a Frenchman who wrote this book in English. In the epilogue, he explains that he wrote the book while living a small town in Connecticut, and that as soon as winter came and the snow fell, he began to pine for the Arctic.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to live there. But I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the place in my imagination as I walked beneath a million stars.

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39 Responses to “Kabloona: Among the Inuit”
  1. js290 says:

    The Inuit must not have had a government telling them what they should be eating. ;-)

    Not surprising that Poncins was initially biased with the Enlightenment view of intelligence.

    Excellent lecture. Thanks for the link. Indeed, the longer he was among the Inuit, the more he realized they didn’t think like Europeans because it wasn’t useful for them to do so.

  2. shutchings says:

    Your writing is très bien. merci.

    Merci.

  3. Graeme Reilly says:

    Hey yes great book.

    a qoute

    Many people imagine that the sun is necessary to human happiness and that the South sea islanders must be the gayest,most lesuirely and most contented folk on the earth.no notion could bemore falsely romantic,for happiness has nothing to do with climate:these Eskimos afforded me decisive proff that happiness is disposition of the spirit.here was a people living in the most rigorous climate in the world in the most depressing surrondings imaginable,haunted by famine in a grey and sombre landscape sullen with the absence of life;shivering in their tents in the autumn,fighting the recurrent blizzard in the winter,toiling and moiling 15 hours a day merely in order to get food and stay alive.huddling and motionless in there igloos through the interminable night,they ought to have been melancholy men,men despondant and suicidal;instead they were a cheerful people,always laughing,never weary of laughter.

    I read this book in our Kiwi winter,not so cold here after all

    As someone who couldn’t stand the non-stop sunny days we’d get in Los Angeles, I related to that part.

  4. Carl says:

    If you liked this book, you would also have loved the TV series “Les Stroud: Beyond Survival” that was just on Discovery a few months ago.

    In it, he travels to several parts of the world where people live as tribes. Everywhere from Africa to South America to northern Canada.

    The level of ‘paleo’ these people live by varies in large degrees, but it’s still fascinating to see. One interesting moment to me was, as soon as an African tribe caught a porcupine, the first thing they did after burning off spines was cut out some of its fat, and eat it immediately to continue hunting. They get sugar about once a year, when the bees hives are ready to be harvested. These guys are FIT too, they are running up and down mountains while Les (who is pretty fit by our standards) struggles to keep up.

    Great series, worth checking out for sure, if you like this kind of stuff :)

    Oh yeah, we’re big fans. It’s something we can watch with the girls as well. We also watched Survivorman, his first series.

  5. Laurie says:

    I read ‘The Queen of Fats’ by Susan Allport (several years before I discovered Taubes and long before I’d heard of paleo) and she spent a lot of the book on the remarkable good health of the Inuit- the ones who still ate their traditional diet. Your post made me think of a few things. I also read that probably Inuit and Northern Europeans naturally tend to higher blood sugar because it acts as anti-freeze in the cold environment. Add in western foods and VOila! DOCs appear. Fructose overload.
    Also, the chubby faces the Inuit sport are most likely from ……wait for it….. the need for insulation on that part of their exposed bodies in the cold. If I hear one more neolith, fructose, healthy whole grains swilling troglodyte tell me an all meat-fat ‘Eskimo’ diet is unhealthy because they are all fat looking and all have diabetes I might have to tell them to start thinking and that maybe there’s something else going on NOW because of their adopted western ‘diet’.

    That’s why when people point to Pacific Islanders who live on starches as proof that I should be able to live on starches as well, I’m not impressed. My ancestors came from northern Europe, not sunny/hot regions.

  6. Jan says:

    Actually, they were eating sashimi – sushi is traditionally served on rice. I love sashimi, but I think I’d give the raw blubber a pass – although I AM getting a kick out of freaking out my readers who eat the SAD by telling them I fry stuff in lard.

  7. Josh Goguen says:

    If you haven’t, you should check out Nanook of the North. It’s a 1922 documentary on Eskimo life. I saw it years ago, but I still remember how impressive the igloo building was.

    I’ve heard of it but haven’t seen it. I’ll look for it.

  8. Mojo Yugen says:

    Check out some of Farley Mowat’s books along the same lines: “The People of the Deer”, “The Desperate People”, “Walking on the Land” or “The Snow Walker”.

    I’ll look those up, thanks.

  9. Clark says:

    I’d sure like to try a taste of that whale blubber myself. It won’t be much longer before the medical community lets go of their egos when people just stop listening to the vast majority of them.

    I’d bet whale blubber is delicious.

  10. Caitlin says:

    While I was attending college in Alaska, oftentimes the Native students would eat their traditional foods – blubber, salmon…thank goodness they were so generous with it – I tried some wild salmon brought from an outer village. It was ambrosia, almost candylike – and I didn’t mind the oil running down my chin at all! I just wish I’d tried the blubber when offered, but this was well before my LC/paleo-ish days.

    I hope they’re still eating their native foods.

  11. Laurie says:

    Vitamin D. – Dr Jay Wortman of “My Big Fat Diet” hints that the Natives living in the far north may get all the Vitamin D, and related compounds precursors etc., they need from their fatty, blubbery food.

  12. Tom, what a fascinating book! Can you tell me where I could buy the audiobook? I love walking my dog, and I am running out of podcasts to listen to, and that story sounds like it is money!

    I download all my audiobooks from Audible.com. The per-book price is high, but if you go with a membership, it ends up being less than $10 per book.

  13. Roberto says:

    Did poncin mention what proportion of their food was consumed raw vs. cooked?

    I often wonder if animal flesh is somehow healthier in it’s raw state. Or at least contains
    something that we shouldn’t be blasting with heat. It stands to reason.

    These sort of accounts depress me. It’s obvious how far removed we are from such a primal
    existence. The most well-researched paleo practitioner, with every resource at his disposal,
    could never even approach this lifestyle. We can count our carbs, shun our grains, polish our
    vibrams and then pat ourselves on the back while we sit reading paleo blogs for 5 hours. But
    it’s a delusion. They are completely hardwired to nature. We are not.

    ” The nutritionists who parrot their textbook knowledge that “you need carbohydrates for energy!”
    should read this book. Poncins recounts running along trails with Eskimos for hours – he was fatigued and panting, while they barely seemed to notice the effort. ”

    I’ve no doubt that was the case. But take any one of our high calibre endurance athletes, strip them of their carbohydrates, give them the highest quality animal fats, and I promise you’ll see their career come to a grinding stop. And I think it’s very telling when we see so many of our Paleo evangelists reconsider carbohydrates. Mark Sisson and his carbohydrate “refeeds” comes to mind.

    (Sorry I posted that in your previous post by mistake)

    They are most of their meat and fish raw, although sometimes they boiled their food.

  14. Lori says:

    It’s funny how different people see poverty. To an extent, it seems to be a state of mind.

    Re: light, I love visiting Los Angeles, even if it looks like dusk to me at 9 pm. Seventy degree weather and flowers blooming at Christmas beat snow and dead grass in my book.

    Thanks for the post!

    I loved the 70-degree Decembers when we first moved there. But after 11 years, I missed the seasons.

  15. Paul Eilers says:

    “I’m pretty sure I’d be similarly annoyed if I were surrounded by dinner companions who grunted as they tore raw meat with their teeth, gulped and slurped their meat as blood and grease dripped down their faces, then finished by tossing the bloody remnants and bones into a corner…”

    Sounds like some of my relatives during Thanksgiving.

    Paul

    I was once stuck on a two-week road trip with a comedian who had similar table manners. It got to where he’d call my hotel room to see if I wanted to join him for dinner and I’m make a polite excuse.

  16. js290 says:

    I’m kind of in the Devany camp on paleo. Technology and progress is good. Simulating paleo is desired, not reliving it.

    Also, high caliber athletes are training on low carb or in fasted state.

    β-HYDROXYBUTYRATE: THE MOST EFFICIENT FUEL Veech and colleagues discovered that administering β-hydroxybutyrate to the perfused rat heart in place of glucose increased work output but decreased oxygen consumption (35).

    Very interesting. So some athletes can skip carbs entirely.

  17. Bullinachinashop says:

    Off topic:Weight Watchers seems to be announcing a “new” way to lose weight and it will unfold on December 6th. I doubt it will be low carb as they already have a quasi low carb plan. Maybe it will be interesting enough for the blog.

    I’ll see what I can learn about it.

  18. If your intention was to entice me to read the book, you win! Sounds fascinating!

    Enjoy. I think you’ll like it.

  19. R Dunn says:

    Sounds like a read worth checking out.

    I was kinda thinking Kabloona was going to turn out to be some kind of Eskimo bologna – probably made from seal and walrus parts.

    I don’t suppose Eskimos use a lot of spices – unless they’re made out of moss or something.

    New movie title … Blubber Head: you’ve been fed a load of kabloona.

  20. R Dunn says:

    I can’t wait for the follow-up lecture – “The Big Blubbery Imbroglio.”

  21. Alec says:

    Sounds like a fascinating book. I’m adding it to my library list after finishing Ron Paul – “Revolution” and “The Art of Not Being Governed” – James Scott (which I’m really interested in reading).

    I read “The Other Side of Eden” from Hugh Brody over the summer (ironically while sitting on a hot beach on vacation) and it was really interesting. Not all about native Eskimos and Inuits but a good portion of the book was about it.

    A few interesting things he notes in the book while living with Eskimos in the 1970s was how jovial the people always were and how much they liked to talk and tell stories. He also describes how subtle the language is and how nuanced words and expressions could be. I also like how he talks about how the Eskimos were always totally 100% honest about everything with their kids, and the kids expected it and were fine with hearing the truth about all matters. He talks about how if kids would ask the parents who was their favorite child, they would actually say which one, and the kids were fine with it! A lot different today when kids (and adults) are fed so many lies about everything from everyone.

  22. WSB says:

    Thanks for the interesting book and also the “Beyond Survival” show. Your comment section has a lot to offer.

    On the off-chance that you may know people who might be interested – this is an event in Nashville about gluten.

    Dec. 12th
    Dr. Tom O’Bryan is a nationally recognized speaker specializing in Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease. He is very knowledgeable about symptoms outside the GI tract that are associated with celiac/gluten intolerance.

    This short video will give you some background on his lecture – “Put That Bread Down! Identifying and Conquering Gluten Sensitivity” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhHwq8eErxs

    There will be “no charge” to attend the event at the MOB Auditorium, Nashville. Dr. O’Bryan is helping our CSA Celiac Chapter create awareness of celiac and gluten intolerance to physicians, dieticians, and other personnel in the medical community throughout the Nashville – Middle Tennessee area.

    Peter H.R. Green, MD, Director of The Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University states, “97% of those with Celiac Disease remain undiagnosed and untreated.” http://www.celiacdiseasecenter.columbia.edu/CF-HOME.htm

    Centennial Women’s Hospital Medical Office Building auditorium
    2221 Murphy Ave
    Nashville 37203

    parking in the lots next door and across from the auditorium also.

    The talk was about 2 hours the last time he was in town, with plenty of references to the medical literature

    Outstanding! Thanks for the link … I’m going to attend. Do you know the time, or have a link to an event page?

  23. Sarah says:

    Mom mentioned at Thanksgiving dinner about how a vegan doctor in some book explained that studies showed animal meat and fat clogged cells so they couldn’t release their glucose.

    Maybe I should… accidentally drop the book into the fireplace.

    Oops! Aw sorry, I’ll get you a better one for Christmas, Mom.

  24. Curious the mention of the correlation of perception of body temperature and diet. Over the last two days, I ate more carbohydrate than I have in six months. (I’d guess that I had over 150 grams of carbs each day; before I had no more than 20 to 30 per day.) I feel cold, colder than I have since the weather turned. (I’m in IN, and it’s chilly.) As I sit and type, my hands and my feet ache with the cold.

    I’d guess that I know the problem. I lived off fat before, but I made my body switch over to carbohydrate; and now it won’t metabolize my own fat stores properly.

    That would explain the weight gain too. It’ll be bacon, eggs and steak for me today!

    That would be my guess.

  25. Ellen says:

    Great post, Tom. Makes me think of Weston Price and his travels. Have you read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael? He calls out the same sort of arrogance from the “civilized” in it, only from a gorilla’s point of view.

    No, I haven’t read it.

  26. mrfreddy says:

    All this talk about Nanook reminds me of Frank Zappa’s version of Nanook of the North…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C30XgTQAsHI

  27. Ellex says:

    I spent three months in Outward Bound climbing mountains reading stuff like this always makes me “homesick” for sleeping under a tarp in the middle of nowhere. (Only the next time I go out I won’t be eating rice and granola).

  28. Anon. says:

    Have you seen this? Defintely worth a look.

    http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2010/11/23/how-vegans-dont-work-an-amazing-look-behind-the-scenes-at-the-vegan-communitys-dirty-secret/

    The article discusses the obvious health detriments of veganism, but most surprising of all is that apparently, most vegans are actually not vegans. A lot of them secretly eat various animal foods.

    Sorry to see CNN repeating the b.s. about meat and the environment, but the article was good. Vegangelicals — love that term.

  29. Hilary Kyro says:

    What an inspiring read that triggered a lot of memories for me. Nanook is on Top Doc. They edited out the part where the kid eats a salmon eyeball–too traumatic (exciting) for school children. Nanooks family is happy-go-lucky going through the hell of cold and life and death tug-o wars with walrus. A child gets a tummy ache after eating a sea-biscuit given to him at the trading post–no problemo you can buy curative castor oil in an alcohol emulsion for 20 arctic fox pelts.

    I need to see that film. Funny they would edit out the eyeball part. My girls have seen Bear Grylls eat eyeballs in Man vs. Wild.

  30. Hilary Kyro says:

    “You’ve been fed a load of kabloona”–that will literary slay at least two unpopular wife-beating noodle-brained innu-kabloonas in any given Northern audience. You’ll be a hero!

  31. Sounds fascinating; I take it you’ve read Steffanson’s essays about living with the Inuit? And, of course, his experiments later at Bellevue?

    But, Tom, I’m worried about your walking while listening to audio books. I used to do that, too. Then my mom was out for a walk one day, listening to a book, and didn’t hear the car that jumped the curb, drove 120 feet up the sidewalk, and hit her doing 35 miles an hour.

    Your ears are one of your major warning systems. Just be really, really careful, ‘kay? I also worry about all the kids who never walk around without their earbuds in. I wonder how many girls have been jumped because they didn’t hear the guy coming up behind them?

    Sorry to be a downer.

    There’s close to zero traffic in our neighborhood late at night, but I’m able to hear cars coming over the sound of a voice reading. Now if I listened to heavy metal, that would be a different story.

  32. stan says:

    Hi Tom,

    I really enjoyed your documentary “Fat Head”. I just recently found out that Al Jazeera did a rather misleading reporting on fast food diet and obesity and more than 1000 people are recommending this on Facebook.

    Fast food, fat profits
    http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/faultlines/2010/11/2010111892118443641.html

    I’m looking forward to your response to this report. Keep up the good work!

    Looks like another Super Size Me.

  33. Sarah says:

    Hey Tom,

    If you had to pick two books to get your Mom for Christmas, and your Mom is say… 50 years old, overweight, with high cholesterol, pre-diabetic, trying to build a good diet and exercise plan to avoid taking medication….. which would you get? ;)

    The New Atkins for a New You
    The Primal Blueprint

  34. WSB says:

    I am glad you can get to the gluten event. I learned a lot form his talk the last time he was here. Sorry I missed putting the time in there. I haven’t been able to find an event page, the local celiac group web site is under renovation.

    From Facebook – CSA Nashville-Middle Tennessee Celiac Chapter #76

    “Dec. 12th; 2-4pm; same meeting place as our meetings. See you there!”

    Thanks. See you there.

  35. Peter Haynes says:

    I just want to say thanks. That is a great summary of what sounds like a lovely story.

    Very good story indeed.

  36. Hilary Kyro says:

    beautiful writing Tom…any excuse to say Kabloona! Blubber from beached whales causes spontaneous and loving spawning behavior.:D :D :D

  37. Mary D says:

    Hi, Tom, thanks for recommending Kabloona – what a great book! My local library had a copy of it sitting on the shelf and I’ve been enjoying it all week. The subtleties of the landscape descriptions and of Poncin’s evolving perspectives regarding the Eskimo are fascinating. Poncin’s writing style is conversational and just sucks you right into the story. So much so, I’ve had a hard time putting down the book since I jumped into it a few days ago!

    Thanks again!

    Glad you’re enjoying it. I sure did.

  38. Dana says:

    I’m kind of philosophical about the whole “technology and progress” thing. We’ve had technology for as long as we’ve been making tools, and what in the world does “progress” mean? I could get into a whole convoluted essay here about how something as simple as literacy has made us dumber (oral-tradition peoples have better long-term memories than literate people do), and how we’ve wrecked so much of the environment just to have the latest cool toys, whether you believe we’ve got anthropogenic global warming or not.

    I was born into this, and this is all I know, and as we are a social animal I could not leave it behind without some kind of tribe around me… but I know it’s not the best way for people to live. Number one, there IS no “the” best way for people to live and number two, I need only look at the health and ecological consequences of how we live to know the score. “By their fruits ye shall know them” and all that–Jesus was a smart guy even if you don’t buy the theological angle. (I don’t, not that it matters.)

    So I find myself in the unenviable position of not liking the way my people live but not being able to leave–and so many of the world’s people are domesticated now, and the wild people dying out. And domesticated people are the same everywhere, the differences between their cultures being superficial for the most part.

    Daniel Quinn’s definitely an interesting read. So’s Jason Godesky, who has not published a book so far as I know, but has written prolifically online.

    Oh and it’s interesting, whenever I bring up Inuit in a discussion of diets, some wag always brings up the fact that they have some of the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world. To which I always reply, “Yes, that’s probably true of the ones eating domesticated industrial foods. What about the ones on traditional foods? They’d have died out long ago.”

    I feel no need to try whale blubber, there are too many domesticated people hunting them already. I don’t object to traditional Inuit and other indigenous peoples familiar with the whale eating its blubber, but that description doesn’t apply to most of us. Maybe if the whale populations ever rebound, but I suspect that under circumstances which allowed for that, the rest of us will have walked away from our own domestication and industrial lifestyles and re-localized our food supplies. I dunno. Just guessing.

  39. William Boulanger says:

    If you enjoyed Kabloona, I suggest that you read “Inuk” by Roger Buliard, a Catholic missionary (briefly mentioned in Kabloona) who was there at the same time. He presents an open-minded, yet missionary point of view of the Inuits. He provides additional cultural insight to this kind of culture that is essentially extinct today, thanks to well-meaning but disastrous government intervention. The Inuit cultures go on but in an evolved form from that described. Some of what he reports may be unsettling to outsiders, but was sheer pragmatism for those living on the edge.

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