Author Archives: kekammert

Searching for Peace and Justice in Guate

http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/lens/2015/04/15/searching-for-peace-and-justice-in-guatemala/?referrer=#

Another interesting article about the lasting effects of Guatemala ‘ s 36 year civil war. Even though it officially ended 19 years ago it still seems like yesterday for many people. I can see the trauma in the faces and stories of our elders who lost their loved ones. The bodies have yet to be found and one can only imagine what they will discover if they look deep into the mountains where they disappeared.

The war left many women widowed which lead to the formation of some of our artisan groups. For them it was the only way of moving on in order to support their children and stay alive. Their stories speak of hiding in the trees at night and only sneaking down to their houses to make food during the day. The war bred mistrust among neighbors which is still evident today. If you ask someone about their daily life you’re not always going to get an honest answer unless you have a developed relationship. This response is automatic if you’re a foreigner which some anthropology students from the Netherlands found out in their research. I imagine it would be a similar situation for public health workers.

Guatemala is a country set back in time that functions on a different speed than what gringos may be used to. However, when I can move past the frustration and inefficiency I often find life here very humorous. For example, a couple days ago one of our staff was having trouble downloading pictures from the SD Card. She asked me to figure out why some of the pictures she had taken weren’t showing up. I noticed that her memory card was only 128 MB and asked her if she continued to take pictures after the card was full. She said yes but that she had tried to transfer them as soon as she had taken them. I began laughing because the only thing I could think of was how it paralleled Guatemalan transportation. It doesn’t matter how much space you have as long as you get there fast. Perhaps you need to be in a speeding chicken bus that is over capacity to understand my humor but it captured a culture shot for me. After explaining why I was laughing I told her that she should buy a memory card with GB behind the number.

It’s another beautiful morning in Guate. The birds have been at it since 5 and the rooster across the street has finally caught my attention even though he’s probably been going at it much for much longer than I’ve realized. Tuc tucs pass by and there’s the familiar pause as they bounce over the speed bump. The flowers are blooming which adds a splash of color as I look out at the neighbor’s roof which has miscellaneous junk and metal stakes sticking out of the top (just in case they want to add another level). The electrical lines look like the cat got into the yarn basket and the boy next door really needs to find the beat or someone who can teach him to play the drums. Everything here seems piled on top of something like the neighbor’s rusty metal siding that abuts the house and is held up by strands of barbed wire. I’ve only highlighted three of many neighbors but you get the idea. However, the lack of clean streets and abundance of public urination is a distant unpleasant memory when I walk 5 minutes to the lake. The rickety docks look more like sticks in the water but the backdrop of the mountains and volcanoes leaves you in awe. It truly is one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen and I don’t think many would disagree. Guatemala is still trying to break into the tourist scene (and in Pana there are plenty) but for now I will be grateful for a great exchange rate and getting off the beaten path.

I hope my stories and pictures have portrayed a country that is different than you might think of if you just listen to the news. If you’re ready for amazing scenary, a vibrant culture and a unique adventure Guatemala is the place (the tourism board should really be paying me for this haha!).

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One Student at a Time

http://firstperson.oxfamamerica.org/2014/04/meet-woman-breaking-pattern-violence-guatemala/

Interesting piece about a woman from one of the communities where I work. It’s so encouraging to see changes,even if they are just on a family level. I would also recommend watching Girl Rising on Netflix if you need any further proof of the importance of educating girls and women from around the world. After reading Half the Sky I gave a mini lecture to Miguel about the importance of offering educational opportunities to young girls. In Guatemala, it’s considerably harder to find families who support sending their daughters to school than to find families that will send a son. After a total of 6 months in Guate I consider myself pretty fluent in not only Spanish, but Guatemalan culture. Discouraging education for girls is one of many aspects that I still cannot swallow.

Apparently I made an impact on him because I was pleasantly surprised when he told Diane and Diana that he would interview girls for the next round of scholarship students. On Friday he visited four girls from small indigenous communities who were shy and quiet, but very excited to start school. Now the work begins to keep them in school and thinking about their future.

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Extra Pictures from a Go Pro

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Kaika and I at the Mirador to Semuc Champey

Kaika and I at the Mirador to Semuc Champey

Friends from the backpacker trail

Friends from the backpacker trail

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Time to jump into those beautiful pools of water

Time to jump into those beautiful pools of water

Jordi, Patrick, Kaika and I

Jordi, Patrick, Kaika and I

Tubing down the river

Tubing down the river

Snorkeling! It's all good!

Snorkeling! It’s all good!

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The dark mass ahead of me is a nurse shark.

The dark mass ahead of me is a nurse shark.

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After this trip I’m sold on Go Pro cameras. I love spending as much time around water as possible so it only makes sense for me to have a camera to capture everything. 🙂

I hope it’s warming up for everyone north of Guate!

Check out Facebook for the videos!

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Semana Santa in Antigua

25 hours after I left Caye Caulker I arrived to see the carpets of Semana Santa in Antigua. Whereas Easter is the big day of celebration Guatemalans celebrate the entire week leading up to Easter. It’s very Guatemala to me to be so dramatic through the Saturday but come Easter morning everything is very calm and quiet. On Friday I wandered around the streets of Antigua stumbling upon carpets, processions and the cobblestones themselves. The bands that follow the floats are way out of tune and too loud to be musical but it seems to fit the scene. Huge floats featuring different scenes from Good Friday are carried upon the shoulders of the people while incense covers up any smells that may be unpleasant (cue in public urination…gross).

On Saturday I had another shuttle dilemma. I woke up at 5 and was out on the street waiting to go to Pacaya Volcano at 6. 30 minutes later I got a hold of someone before my minutes ran up. A very old and full shuttle showed up and took us to the outskirts of town where it dropped us off and told us that there would be a bigger bus coming. After finding coffee and waiting another 40 minutes a school bus showed up and more people than were initially in the shuttle boarded the bus. As we’re leaving town the bus pulls over to wait for more people. What was initially two turned into another shuttle full. We were finally on our way 1 1/2 hours after I was supposed to be picked up. One later after lurching and swerving our way to the national park we arrived at the base of the active volcano. There were horse taxiis and walking stick sellers run by a pack of young kids. By 9 the 30+ people in the group began hiking with just the one guide. The hike up took about an hour and a half up and even though it was steep we had lots of stops to wait for people.

At the end of the trail there was a lava store that sold pieces jewelry made from pieces of lava. The profits going to support the people who live near the volcano. It was very windy and crowded because of the holiday but I still managed to roast a marshmallow over some lava and scramble around on the beds of dried, hardened lava while at the top the volcano was throwing out puffs of smoke the entire time. Last year it did erupt preventing tourists from visiting but on this day someone thought it was ok (I don’t think there’s a scientific monitoring system in place). The way down was a bit interesting as we slid through deep dark sand down a very steep hill. My poor knees just hate the descent and I’m convinced that one day they’ll give out and I’ll just roll to the bottom. Maybe I should have taken a horse down. 🙂 By 1:30 I was back in Antigua and went to wander again.

On Easter Sunday I found some hot cross buns and coffee and enjoyed a peaceful morning in the park by the fountain. I didn’t have a problem shopping or visiting restaurants as the majority were opened which surprised me. At night I spent time with some new friends drinking Cuba Libres made from Flor de Caña (I would highly recommend trying it!). Monday morning arrived and I went out to wander again. It’s easy to get lost in Antigua but I use the different architecture to orient myself. It’s a very touristy city so you can find any food and necessities that you might need which is a nice break from Pana. When 4pm rolled around I was dreading the shuttle ride back to Pana but was pleasantly surprised when it showed up on time and said that I was the only one going to Pana. It was pure traveler’s bliss.

I’m back in Pana working away and enjoying the lovely weather and my tan thanks to a few days in Belize. Enjoy the pics!

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Beautiful Belize!

I arrived in Belize with swollen ankles and a stomach bug after 30 hours of travel so I was happy to have a shower and a fan. Thankfully or not it was raining like crazy so I went to bed early. The next morning I took a boat to a part of the world’s second largest barrier reef where Hol Chan Reserve and Shark Ray Alley for some snorkeling. I wish I had a camera because the water was colorful and clear and the fish were everywhere! I saw stingrays, barracudas, nurse sharks, eels, sea turtles and other tropical fish. It wasn’t worth it to dive since it’s very shallow and I could free dive down to where they were looking around. After returning I was told that the only dives offered that day were to Hol Chan so I decided to wait until I met up with Kaika in Caulker. Since I was still pretty sick I didn’t wander too far but had a nice smoothie and key lime pie at a bakery and bought a very colorful ceramic tucan. San Pedro/Ambergris is a very built up, touristy island filled with tourists. It was so strange to see such a difference and just as strange to see Guatemalans selling their crafts on the beach. Belize is not well known for their crafts and tourism is fairly new to the country so it still doesn’t have a lot of local art presence.

The next morning I headed south to Caye Caulker which is considerably more laid back and backpacker friendly (as in much cheaper). I met up with Kaika and we headed to the Split for some sun and swimming. A hurricane split the island in two so one side is developed and the other side looks like it hasn’t been touched. Later we tried to find some dive opportunities and quickly realized that everything was full. At the last place we found a couple places for the next day’s dive and signed up. For lunch we had shrimp on the beach and for dinner we had snapper and shrimp at a local favorite after enjoying margaritas on the beach for sunset.

When we arrived the next morning to the dive shop we were surprised to get our deposit back because the boat broke down. We tried to search for another opportunity but everything was full so I had to accept that there would be no diving for me. Instead we found a sailboat and sailing tour and decided to spend the day on the water. While the snorkeling wasn’t as great as the last time we still saw lots of animals and had a fantastic time on the boat. I hadn’t been sailing since 2011 when I went Greece so it was a great way to relax. After so many days on the beach and the boat we were both a bit burned but tanning faster than I have ever had. We ate shrimp on the beach again and enjoyed more lovely island life drinks.

At 7 the next morning I was on the water taxi headed away from the beauty of the water, sand and sun. Once again I entered the world of Latin American transport meaning that the bus that was supposed to leave at 10 didn’t leave until 12:30-1:00 pm. While waiting I was greeted by two friendly women from Nicaragua. We quickly began sharing stories about our travels and all the things to see and do in Nicaragua. Lillian works with Women’s Rights Organizations for the United Nations in Belize and her friend Wellene was visiting. Both spoke english so we switched back and forth between that and Spanish. We arrived at the border we were greeted with one person to collect exit fees and one person to stamp everyone’s passport. Needless to say I waited a very long time to leave Belize. After getting my passport stamped in Guatemala I stepped over the passed out drunk guy (welcome back to Guate) and boarded the bus.

Hours later we pulled into Santa Elena and I began contemplating where I was going to wait. As I was getting settled Lillian and Wellene approached and asked if I wanted to eat dinner at Lillian’s brother’s house and that they would drive me back to the station in time for the bus. In general, this would not be recommended but after such a long trip and knowing that the station isn’t the best I decided to go with the woman who works for women’s rights for the UN. The family’s house was absolutely lovely and I was greeted warmly by the family. Originally from Nicaragua, they lived in Belize for many years before moving to Guate. The three kids were home from college for easter so we also swapped stories and experiences. It was a lovely time and a great break from the stresses of the road. I also received multiple recommendations.to try Flor de Caña rum which is from Nicaragua as well.

Just before 9 they dropped me off at the bus stop and made sure I was on the right one. The night bus ride back to Guate went as smoothly as I could have hoped even though sleeping was difficult with a guy trying to snuggle you in his sleep. 8 hours later at 5 am we arrived at the station. When the shuttle to Antigua didn’t arrive at 6 I once again began worrying. 30 minutes later I received a call from the travel agency saying that I needed to get a taxi to meet the bus because it couldn’t get to the station because of Good Friday processions. Q50 later I met the bus and we headed for the largest Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebration in the world.

Part 3 of my trip continues soon…

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The wild roads of Coban and Peten

Who knew that this wouldn't be so bad compared to the next shuttle I had to take!

Who knew that this wouldn’t be so bad compared to the next shuttle I had to take!

Can you spot the little green bag?  Glad I bought an orange rain cover at REI that I used after my bag arrived covered in dirt.

Can you spot the little green bag?
Glad I bought an orange rain cover at REI that I used after my bag arrived covered in dirt.

View from the room near Semuc Champey

View from the room near Semuc Champey

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Jumped from that bridge!

Jumped from that bridge!

Our little cabin in the jungle

Our little cabin in the jungle

Semuc Champey-- absolutely gorgeous!

Semuc Champey– absolutely gorgeous!

Steep steep stairs

Steep steep stairs

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Love my hat but it doesn't always do so great for pics :)

Love my hat but it doesn’t always do so great for pics 🙂

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My friend Kaika and I

My friend Kaika and I

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Time to go swimming!

Time to go swimming!

Beautiful views

Beautiful views

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Yep- that bridge

Yep- that bridge

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Swimming through a cave with only this candle!

Swimming through a cave with only this candle!

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Kaika (my new found friend from Poland- lives in London)

Kaika (my new found friend from Poland- lives in London)

Other friends from the backpacking trail...silly hat

Other friends from the backpacking trail…silly hat

Tubing and beer!

Tubing and beer!

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And so begins part 1 of my 12 day adventure on the road. Remember the schedule that posted last time…things are about to change!

It took me 12 hours to get from Pana to Lanquin. The bus that I met in Antigua was packed to the gills with people from Israel who had just finished their mandatory military service. Without a translator it was apparent that they were loud, ill-prepared for Guate traveling, demanding and unwilling to compromise. They fought with the poor bus driver every step of the way and were only concerned with themselves. I do not speak Hebrew but it was apparent to more than just me. Sitting in the back between 3 people I realized it was going to be a long ride. After we reached Coban the roads got worse until we were just driving on gravel. Once in Lanquin I dashed off the bus and started walking toward the pickup truck that would take me to Semuc. While I was walking a local asked me if that was my sister to my left. The two of looked at each other and smiled and I explained that we had never met. After introducing ourselves we realized that we were following the same travel path and decided to be buddies. Kaika is originally from Poland yet you would never know that English is her 3rd language because she has worked in London for 10 years.

With everyone and their luggage piled into the back of a pickup truck we set off on the wild jungle roads headed to Semuc. 40 minutes later we arrived at our hostel along the river. Upon a quick inspection we realized that the top bunk of the dorm rooms was to sketchy for us to risk so we paid for an upgrade to a private cabin with bathroom. We were both thankful to have had the other person to help defray the costs.

The wonderful part about traveling by yourself and getting on the backpacking trail is that you find many people just like yourself. While on the truck we quickly made friends with two guys from Spain (one now lives in Chicago), a woman from Argentina now living in Switzerlands, a woman from Alaska off on a quest to “find herself” and a couple nurses from Italy. At dinner we continued to swap stories and backgrounds over dinner until the humidity and travel time forced me to go to sleep.

In the morning we set off on our day tour of Semuc Champey, Kamba caves and river tubing. We began by climbing the steep trail to the Mirador to get a birds eye view of the limestone pools that cascade into each other. With our legs shaking we descended until we reached the pools where we quickly jumped in. Our guide then led us from the little waterfalls, to natural slides and cliffs to jump off. The water is warm, clear and deep in some parts and is a popular place for locals to swim as well. After lunch we hiked up to the opening of the Kamba cave where we lit our handmade candles and began to wade through the water filled passages. I was very thankful for my Keen hiking/water sandals because everyone else had flip flops which were useless when it came to swimming through the cave, climbing ladders, waterfalls or rock faces. All of this was done with zero outside lighting minus the candles that everyone carried. It was an incredible experience that would never be found in the states. To be able to see the formations with just the light of a candle was fascinating and to have to swim to see them even more amazing. After exiting long after my candle burned out we grabbed our tubes and floated slowly back towards the hostal. To our surprise, there were young boys selling beers from coolers that they had in their tubes. For Q5 we sipped on beer while floating along (it was terrible beer but it seemed to fit the occasson).

After hiking back towards the hostal the guide suggested that we could take one final jump from the bridge. The locals had been doing it all day and after seeing a few of the guys do it I decided that one woman had to do it. My friend Kaika had been recording the day with her go pro (definitely getting one for my next adveture) so she agreed to record it. It was definitely a thrill and something that made me a bit famous because I was the only girl to do it.

After raining all night it quickly became apparent that the dirt roads had turned to mud. After the pickup ride into town I was picked up by the shuttle at 8 to leave for Flores. However due to a terrible confluence of events (the same group of kids from Israel and washed out roads), I didn’t leave for Flores (9 hour drive) until 4 pm. In fairness to the Israelis the situation was dangerous. The company tried to put 20 people in a shuttle plus all of their luggage on top. While this might be common for local transport it’s not right for safe long distance travel. However, the place to step up and stop everything would have been at the beginning or at the place the driver said would be safe to unload everyone. But no, they decided to get off and complain on an incline while backed up in traffic due to an accident. Even when the road cleared they refused to move or listen so I was forced to look behind me as one vehicle went off the road after another. Some would slide towards us and all I could do was hope that it stopped. My patience had gone out the window but as the only spanish and english speaker I was in charge of translating everything. It took uus 4 hours to get off that dreaded road and after everything that had happened the driver refused to continue. Instead he dropped us off at a hotel and drove off saying that there would be another bus to come pick us up.

4 hours later a bus arrived and with 10 people packed in we left. The driver had already driven from Flores that day so he was tired and just as ticked as everyone in the shuttle. Once again I was in charge of translating so I knew it was going to be a long night. One of the windshield wipers broke and despite having all of the windows opened it was still fogging up because of the rain and humidity. The roads were filled with potholes and speed bumps so it was rough going and I tried not to think about the incidences of robbery on dark roads in Guate. I did have a lovely conversation with a guy from the Netherlands about travel and fair trade in Latin America but it was in between moments of tension. At one point around 11pm we stopped at a gas station for food. As I was stretching my poor body who arrives in their own private large bus but the group of Israelis. My nightmare continued as they got out, acknowledged my presence and said “look what we got.”We ended up following them all the way to Flores.

After arriving at 1 am I helped the two younger Israeli girls find their hostel and then the older couple, also from israel, that I had spent the entire day with. The four of them helped me understand Israeli culture and also prevented me from making a large stereotype of Israeli travelers. After everyone had left the tired bus driver said I could sleep on a bench in the travel agency’s office until I needed to be at the station at 4 am for my 5am bus. I slept for a couple hours and then he kindly drove me to the station (mostly thankful that I didn’t have to encounter the prostitutes we passed along the way).

At 5 am we left and made one stop to pick up guess who…the Israelis and even more Israelis. I tried to sleep as much as I could but my horrible transport experiences were not over. We crossed the border and waited a good while for the bus and the Israelis to cross over. Meanwhile I went to the bathroom. Upon receiving the soap and towels from a Guatemalan woman who was working there politely said thank you in Spanish to which she responded “We’re in Belize. We speak English. There’s no need to show off.” Welcome to Belize!

Pictures and stories from island life to come!

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Packing once again

I’m packing up my green pack and double checking my tickets and travel list for my 12 day adventure that starts tomorrow at 6am. It’s going to be a grueling 10 hour journey to Lanquin/Semuc Champey which is located in the forest jungles of Coban. I’ve heard nothing but awe-struck reviews about Semuc Champey and am quite excited to see what lies so far off the paved path. I have bug repellant wipes, bug spray and even a bandana that’s supposed to be treated with some bug stuff. I have long pants and my malaria pills but no mosquito net so we’ll see how bitten up I get. I’ll  spend Friday tubing, visiting the waters of Semuc Champey and the caves around Lanquin. On Saturday morning I will once again take the winding, rough roads to Flores, Peten where I will stay in the same hostel as I did last year when I went to Tikal. At 5 am on Sunday I will board the bus for Belize and arrive on the coast by mid-morning so I can take a water taxi to one of the northernmost cayes, Ambergris. It’s the most tourist so I will hopefully have the opportunity to spend plenty of time on the water, sailing, snorkeling, diving or all of the above. On Tuesday I will head south to Caye Caulker which is more laid back and indicative of Belize’s hammock culture. I’ll look into more diving opportunities and water adventures here as well since Belize is home to the world’s second largest barrier reef. On Thursday morning I will trek across the border and take the night bus 9+ hours to Guatemala City.From there I will head to Antigua which is home to the world’s largest Semana Santa celebration. It will be Good Friday so I will get to see a different set of processions than what I saw on Palm Sunday last year. After spending Easter weekend in Antigua I will return to Pana on Monday April 6th. I’m telling you now so that in the re-telling you can see if it actually goes as planned. Fingers crossed and camera packed.

The pictures from earlier this week were from an Artisan Fair that we were invited to by the office of the First Lady of Guatemala. Through one of her social developent program she is working with Guatemalan artisans to provide them with the skills to create a quality product and a buying market. It was a very high class affair filled with fancy dress, free drinks and gourmet appetizers. I admit that I was completely shocked to see clean streets, bright lights and buildings that were completely intact. There’s no doubt that the difference between classes is very wide and far-removed from each other. After a delightful night rubbing shoulders with people with way more money than anyone in Santiago has seen, we returned to a much poorer part of town to spend the night. There’s no doubt that Guatemala City is a large, dangerous city but if you have a car that roars and looks tough most people assume the worst of you and leave you alone (usually Miguel’s loud car annoys me but I was thankful for it in the city where robbers abound).

Back to work for me! Look for the most updated Katie travel trail on Facebook!

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Palace and Cathedral in Guatemala City Zone 1

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Night out in Guatemala City (the wealthy part )

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That is definitely not a Guatemalan

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Spain in Guatemala

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First Lady of Guatemala entering on the left

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First Lady and I

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Stevens grads in Guatemala '10, '09, '08

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Lola and Chonitas

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Pi Day!

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Santiago from Hotel Bamboo

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PT students from Columbia

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Beautiful Atitlán

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San Pedro Volcano in the background

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Cutting watermelon is my favorite job

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