Archive for September, 2006

Learned something exciting yesterday. Forget living on the other side of the world doing a job that I’m totally unprepared for, this is about something important: books. Iain Banks has a novel due out on 3 March 2007; it’s called The Steep Approach to Garbadale. It’s not one of his Iain-with-an-M science fiction books, so it’s not as exciting as it might have been, but it’ll have been two and half years since his last novel (The Algebraist) so it makes up for a little on that score. It’s the longest gap between publication of any of his books – maybe he’s slowing down in his old age, or perhaps he just has less to write about, or to prove – and I hope it’ll be worth the wait.

From what I’ve read about it, it looks to be quite similar to The Crow Road – which is no bad thing. More information and an extract can be found on his website. The extract appears to be the prologue and concerns a woman who – well, let’s just say she goes for a bit of a walk. I particularly liked the line:

She walks down the path by the river, listening to the waters roar and shush.

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I like it when you have two unusual but similar experiences in quick succession. OK, these experiences are always very modest – usually along the lines of hearing a new word one day and then hearing it again a few days later. For instance, a few months ago, within the space of four to six weeks, I read two books with characters called Jared and started rolplaying with someone with that selfsame moniker. Not a name you come across all that often (unless you read a lot of Jared Diamond).

On to the point of this post. In Robert Rankin’s book The Toyminator, which I read recently, he mentions that the big sign on the hill that says ‘Hollywood’ originally read ‘Hollywoodland’. Shortly after that, I started reading The Road to Dune, in which we learn that Frank Herbert’s original idea for Dune, Spice Planet, was set on a world called Duneworld. Maybe that’s not all that similar. However, not long after that, I went to see The Black Dahlia, which is set in 1940s California and where, of course, we’re shown the original Hollywoodland sign (or, rather, a CGI version thereof).

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New stranger, new labour

Well, then. My first week at work. Feeling like a fish out of water is practically a way of life for me, so starting a new job in a new career in a new country is … not so easy.

The hagwon director picked me up from my apartment on Tuesday morning. Then I observed a couple of kindergarten classes with a middle-aged Californian woman. After that I had lunch with another waeguk (foreigner) teacher, a Kashmiri British Canadian, who tells me he lost a lot of money when he converted from Islam (to Mormonism, one of our colleagues tells me) and was one of the survivors of Piper Alpha. Lunch was chicken salad consisting of fried chicken, various types of lettuce, salad cream, apple, orange and kiwi fruit – a bit strange, but quite nice. Nobody had given me instructions for the afternoon, so I went home and slept.

Wednesday (excuse me while I shudder slightly) started with me getting up very early and going for a long walk in the morning haze. Later, I took the kindergarten classes I’d observed the previous day – an experience that made think how totally unprepared I am for this job. I had lunch at the school (including some of the famous kimchi – spicy cabbage – which is OK, but the taste is a bit acrid). The the Canadian guy took me aside and said I should go home and change my shirt because I was smelly.

My philosophy is that if you’re clean and your clothes are clean then you don’t need to douse yourself in chemicals. (Although this was put to the test in London when it got very hot and my handwashing abilities weren’t really up to the challenge.) For an hour I felt like shit, lying on my bed wondering whether I hadn’t made a big mistake coming here and waiting for the other teacher to return with some of his deodorant (which isn’t readily available in Korea). Then I dragged myself back to work and got on with the afternoon’s observation classes. And I didn’t feel too bad by the end of day.

Liberally distributed about my apartment when I got here were these plastic capsule things about an inch and a quarter across that contain pungent tablets. The smell they give off is chemical and not too pleasant, and I don’t know if they’re to control odours or pests. There were a few in my wardrobe and I suspect that these, combined with the long walk and the heat and synthetic fibre shirt, were responsible for the day’s unpleasantness.

On Thursday, the older female teacher (I’m the fifth foreign teacher at the school, the two I haven’t mentioned are a New Zealander guy and a Korean American woman, both in their twenties) was absent because she was off to Japan to get her visa. I took the kindergarten classes in the morning, went home at lunchtime, lay down, drowsed, still feeling down from the previous day, and went back later than I should have done. When I got there I found out I was taking the absent teacher’s classes. Nobody had told me this beforehand.

On Friday, I taught all day.

The school has quite a good feel to it – it seems established and it seems, more or less, to care about its students. From what I’ve read, it’s a lot better than many other hagwons. As well as the foreign staff there are eight or so Korean English teachers, all of them female (a couple of them very prety) – one of whose English is so good I thought she was American. The students come for at least a couple of classes at a time; the youngest students attend on a daily basis and I assume the older ones do, too. A class is forty minutes (although, effectively, I have two one-hour-twenty kindergarten classes) and, with the exception of the kindergarteners for some reason, the school schedules classes so the students have some time with Korean teachers, some with waeguks. I don’t know yet where I fit into all this, as I’ve just been covering the other teacher’s classes so far, and I suspect I won’t find out until I’m expected to do it.

The teaching itself basically consists of doing a couple of pages from whatever book it is that the students are using, and throwing in some ad lib stuff to pad it out to forty minutes. When the bell (in the form of a computer-generated ‘Für Elise’) goes for the next class (in the afternoon there’s a five minute break between classes) most of the teachers kill a minute or so carrying on doing what they were doing. When you get to the class and find out that some students need copies, that kills a bit more time. I’ve been spending a few minutes at the start of the class introducing myself and getting the kids to do likewise. Then I have a look at the book, get them to do the work and maybe ask them some questions about it. After that I’ve been playing hangman, which they’re quite good at (and in my second kindergarten class they pretty much run around cheering if they get a letter right).

Ages at the school (not including the teachers) range from about six to thirteen, maybe a bit older (although you add a year to that for Korean ages). My first kindergarten class (in a room called North America. All the ‘kindy’ classrooms are named after continents; the older students’ rooms are named after universities – Yale, Harvard, UC Berkeley, MIT, Oxford and so on, although one of them is named after the school itself) is very boisterous and much of your time can be taken up telling them to put their toys away and sit down. The older kids are better-behaved, having, presumably, been tamed by the public schools, but they can still be pretty enthusiastic. They’re grouped by ability, so, inevitably, you get classes of kids with low aptitude for English. Which is a bit depressing because they completely lack the energy of their high-flying counterparts; it seems that, not only are they not so good at English, they know it and they’re ashamed of the fact.

At the end of a partial week’s teaching I feel reasonable happy; it looks like the job is entirely do-able. Now I need to get to grips with the administrative side of things, I need to figure out what homework to give the students (the parents complain, apparently, if you don’t – and so far I haven’t), I need to find out where I’m going to fit in to the schedule. I need someone to show me how to use my washing machine – it’s very different from western ones. One of my main concerns at this point is that the teaching load seems to be much greater than the recruiter originally told me it was: 100 hours a month, his e-mail said; at this point it’s looking more like 150 hours or greater. If so, it looks like I’ll spend a lot of my free time doing what I was doing most of this last weekend: sleeping.

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Bri and Kev keep scraping the barrel that is Dune and saps like me keeping buying their books (although I did get this for three or four pounds from a remainders shop). The Road to Dune is a moderately more worthwhile read than the Legends of Dune books. It contains: a novella written by the two barrel-scrapers based on an outline by Herbert senior called Spice Planet; some correspondence to and by Frank Herbert; various deleted scenes from the first two Dune books; and four short stories by Herbert the younger and Anderson.

While, as with Legends of Dune, the characterisation and dialogue is woeful, Spice Planet is an interesting glimpse of what Dune might have been. The story is a lot simpler – there are no Fremen (although there are ex-convicts known as freedmen), no Bene Gesserit, none of the messianic musings – and many of the names are different – the main character is Jesse Linkam, his son Barri is a minor character, and the villain is one Valdemar Hoskanner. If Frank Herbert had written it it might have been something on a par with The Dragon in the Sea.

Fortunately for us, he had other ideas. In the middle of this book we get a feel for what they were. Herbert had done some research into efforts to curb encroaching desert and was trying to sell an article. Later on, he started writing Dune and his and his agents attempts to sell it as a novel fell flat at first. Eventually they sold it to a publisher better known for producing car manuals. The letters included here are the highlight of the book and help one appreciate what Herbert went through in creating Dune.

After the correspondence there are a number of passages from Dune and Dune Messiah that were either cut to keep the serialisation short or changed in the final version. It was a pleasure to read something by a decent writer after the mediocrity of his inheritors, but these fragments are pretty irrelevant – many of them could have been incorporated into the final novel version of Dune, but weren’t and they don’t add that much.

Lastly, the book contains four short stories by Herbert and Anderson – the first, from 1999, is set on Dune at the time of the Harkonnen raid on Arrakeen; the others form preludes to each book in the Legends of Dune trilogy. Because they’re short, they’re not so bad as the aforementioned trilogy. The final story, ‘The Faces of a Martyr’, works least well because it really ought to be part of one of the books – with three main characters, its focus is too diffuse. The final line should give you some idea of just how bad the dialogue is: ‘Forward! […] We have enemies to destroy!’

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I’ve arrived

The flight from Amsterdam to Incheon was pretty dull. Whereas on the Manchester to Schiphol leg I’d had a window seat and been mesmerised by the fantastic view – the clouds below looked sometimes just like snow, sometimes like a strange, bulging landscape – on the 747 to South Korea I sat in the middle of the plane, and had a spectacular view of the wall of the galley. I read some more of The Road to Dune, got some sleep, damaged a light (because I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off – I mean, I pressed too hard when probing it, I didn’t hit it out of frustration).

This flight included my first experience of airline meals. The stewardess gave me and the man next to me (and everyone else, presumably) a choice of fish or pasta. I chose pasta, he chose fish. I got fish and he got pasta. And neither of us said anything, we just ate what we were given. I’m sure they tasted equally plasticky.

The first time I’d flown was only two years ago, when I went to Prague with Lawrence. On both flights that time I was a bit nervous, but this time I was more excited. Maybe next I fly I’ll be totally blasé about it (I hardly noticed when we touched down in Korea, for instance), but, like train travel, it’ll probably always have that special sense of anticipation.

Incheon Airport was huge and mostly empty. Also brand new – only five years old, apparently. Maybe I was just in the wrong part of the complex, but it didn’t seem to have any of the shops and restaurants that make Schiphol so vibrant – it was just endless beige corridor. I got through immigration control with little hassle, picked up my suitcase, changed £120 into 209,600 won and met the recruiter.

Who then drove me to Ansan. The first thing I noticed is that I was sitting on the wrong side of the car – left hand drive, you see. The drive took about an hour, but he was driving quite slowly. He had to pay at three toll booths. When we got to the Ansan he asked me, Ansan is a beautiful city isn’t it? Well, not exactly, no – I said it has lots of trees, which it does, at about 15 foot intervals along the largest streets.

Then we got to the hagwon and I was introduced around. It turned out that Immigration had some problem with my documents. Apparently, they didn’t think my degree certificate was real because it wasn’t big enough. As I write this I haven’t heard anything else on this front, but I’m not expecting to be sent home – it’ll just take a bit of wrangling, I expect.

Next, I was taken to my apartment. Which I’m quite pleased with. After living in my tiny studio flat in London and my sister’s cramped terrace house it feels positively spacious. It’s on the ground floor (or first floor in Korean terms) and it has French windows opening on to a gap between my building and the next; they have security bars across them, so I’m in the habit of leaving them open all day (and shutting them at night to block out the city sounds).

The school left me some food and drink, pans, crockery and cutlery. They left a large bottle of water, a similarly-sized bottle of orange juice, a bottle of Coke, a can of what turned out to be lager (which went down the sink after one mouthful), and a carton of milk (which, when I poured it on cornflakes, turned out to be cottage cheese) – they left me all these beverages but no cups or glasses from which to sip them.

I have a waching machine that I don’t know how to use. I have a TV that I haven’t tried plugging in for the native TV stations (I may get cable, though). The adapter doodads I got from Manchester airport work – although my alarm clock has trouble telling the time. Evidently, it keeps time from the frequency of the electricity it gets fed and in Korea it runs 20% faster. So I’ve unplugged it. I’ve been given a rather girlishly white mobile phone, and its most useful function so far is the alarm clock.

There’s an air-conditioning unit in the flat, and under-floor heating. The latter was demonstrated to me by the recruiter and the school director (actually, it took them a while to figure out how to get it on … so to speak). When I first walked in, I had in my mind the fact that Koreans always take their shoes off at home and I thought, Should I? Shouldn’t I? Well, I didn’t, but then was told to – in order to get the benefit of the heating. Which is OK, but since then I’ve been keeping my shoes on simply because it’s more comfortable for me – and I’ve kept the heating off anyway.

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Well, it’s been nearly a week since I left for Korea and, apart from the one below, I haven’t posted here. Mostly, I’ve been too busy and too tired (and too lazy, of course). However, it’s the weekend now, so I plan to get up to date. I’ve got another post ready that I wrote at home last night, but forgot to copy on to my USB memory thingummy. I’ve had a stressful time, I suppose – Wednesday wasn’t a good day, but things have been looking up since then. Full details will follow.

Since I e-mailed various people just before I left I’ve had a new best day ever: on Tuesday I had 67 views. Some of them even e-mailed back with good luck messages, which was nice.

In related news, I’ve updated my Flickr site with some photos of my new flat. For some reason, when you rotate pictures on the site they don’t display properly – at least at first: I did some from Derbyshire during the week and they now show up right.

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Airport skiffle

I’m sitting in a sandwich bar-type place above the sprawling departures concourse of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. So that’s 304 miles down, only another 5,439 to go.

It’s been interesting and, dare I say, fun so far. My parents came round to my sister’s place this morning, although this latter relative had a Christening to go to, so I said my quiet, almost grudging goodbyes to them at home. My niece climbed across the backseat of her dad’s car to give me a kiss; my nephew, sitting right in front of me didn’t want to, so I shook his hand. My sister even kissed me as well. Hm, whatever.

It must have been the strangeness and adrenaline of the moment, but seeing my parents was almost pleasant. I can’t talk to them like I would to a friend, and usually I’d rather just ignore them, but we chatted a little – well, they asked a few questions and I answered. They got me a great big bar of chocolate while I was in the toilets at Manchester Airport, which was somewhat underwhelming as, on a kind of health/philosophical level, I don’t much like eating sweet stuff. I’ll eat it of course, but I’ll worry about my teeth and spots and suchlike while I’m at it.

Actually – nearly forgot because it’s in my luggage – my dad got me a digital camera. Not as good as my sister’s, but with four megapixels it should prove reasonably useful. It’s things like that that make me feel awkward: You’re a complete waste of space … umm, thanks for that, though.

(As I mentioned talking to friends, I’ll put in here that yesterday afternoon I rang up six or eight (depending on your point of view, given that there are two couples among them) people – and they were all out. Later in the evening I spent an hour or two talking to Alex, and got him to promise to join my on-line RPG, Empire of Destiny (and on the subject of Alex, I can see some signs that say ‘Fly Alex’ – he’s a dark horse). The following morning, lacking the time for conversations I e-mailed a shit-load of people, most of whom are little more than vague acquaintances – well, former fellow students, lecturers and roleplaying geeks.)

After going through into the departures area, I went into Dixons and bought a couple of socket adapters. The checkout guy asked me what I was after, I told him, he said, Here you are, I said OK. Having now had a closer look at the packaging they only say that they convert UK to European. My laptop is the main thing that I have to worry about, but I have my radio alarm clock with me, so I’ll test them on that.

A couple of days ago when I got the booking confirmation through I was worried that I might have chosen the wrong strategy in getting the biggest suitcase I could. The weight limit for luggage was quoted as 30kg. I thought, Well, I only weigh 60, if that, and that case, full, will surely weigh more than half of me. As it turns out, I’ve got a few kilogrammes to spare. I kept opening it up this morning to put more stuff in. So at the moment I have, let’s see …

Alarm clock
Shoes (three pairs)
Large novels (six – no, seven including the one I’m reading now)
ESL-related books
Folder of documents
Tablets (a veritable pharmacopia)
Cat ornaments (well, why not?)
A pillow (Korean pillows are not that nice, apparently)
Dice (my aquamarine gem poly dice set plus a blue d24 and purple d30)
Plectrum (one, heavy – you never know)
Bar of chocolate (large)
Bottle of water
Blah – I don’t really need to list consumables do I?

The ten hour flight to Incheon should just have started boarding. I moseyed on over there an hour or so ago and – shock, horror – there were a number Korean people waiting in the waiting area (what else would one do in a waiting area? Well, add weights to things, perhaps, if you’d misunderstood.) So I ought to go and wait, too, I suppose.

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I was a bit disconcerted to find that my booking confirmation, when it came through from a Korean travel agent, noted that my return flight was in early August next year. And I’m going in mid-September. And I have a twelve month contract. And if your maths is as good as mine, you’ll realise that something doesn’t quite add up there. However, when I queried it with the recruiter he explained that the airline’s system won’t allow you to book a full year in advance, and that it’ll be changed nearer the time. So that’s OK, then. Probably.

It’s currently about 7:15 am on the day of my outward journey (1:25 hours to Amsterdam, and from there 10:10 hours to Incheon) and I haven’t packed yet (well, how long does it take to put stuff in a case?). What I have been doing is transferring stuff from my desktop computer to my laptop – all my old e-mails for instance. Somehow, this has taken all night (with a lot of general internet browsing and faffing about thrown in). But, then, I wouldn’t have slept anyway.

Nervous? Excited? Yes. But … it’s not quite real yet, I suppose, so I also feel somewhat blank (but there’s nothing new about that). My next post will likely come at you from eight hours in the future, in the land of morning calm. See you there.

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Maybe it thought I was Harry Hill

The weather’s so nice right now. The air is grey with rain and pretty much has been for the last twelve hours. Crunchy booms of thunder roll across the hills. The power just went off for half a second. My sister had a couple of tons of topsoil delivered last night, but it’s in danger of being washed away before we can do anything with it.

Today’s climatic conditions are in sharp contrast to last night, when it was very pleasant and when I went for a walk round the reservoir. Which you can’t really do.

When I go for a walk, I usually go up the side of the reservoir, between it and an artificial stream. When you get to the end of the path, you reach this strange location where the stream on your right goes into a tunnel through a stone platform. A set of steps take you up on to the platform, while down on your left another set of steps form a transition between the stream in the valley in front of you and the tail of the reservoir. Very little, if any, water flows over this weir, but on the other side, another stream falls down the face of the craggy valley side.

The ‘engineered’ path ends at this platform, but a trail leads on on one side of the upper stream. Before last night I’d followed the trail once, through some boggy but traversible ground, up along the wooded slope to an area with trees and fields. The way I went ran out of options so I came back the same way.

Since then, I’ve just been going up to the platform, then back, over the near end of the reservoir, through the park, through the village and home. One evening a couple of weeks ago, having taken my laptop up to the platform and sat writing for a while, I saw a badger on the way back. Never seen one in the flesh before. It was on the other side of the artificial stream, standing on the very lip, or even over it, supported by the vegetation, and nibbling berries off the brambles. I watched it for five or ten minutes, standing no more than ten feet away from it, and it didn’t seem at all concerned by my presence (although badgers don’t have the best eyesight, do they?). After a while, it trundled off into the undergrowth and I strode on. Only to find that the badger was jogging along on the other side of the stream and keeping pace with me. It stopped, so I stopped and watched it – while it watched me. Then we both carried on and it went into some laurel or rhododendron bushes and I didn’t see it again.

Last night, however (getting back to the main thrust of this entry), I went beyond the platform once more and up the valley. Instead of carrying on when I reached the vicinity of the fields, I turned left up a slope and then left again, heading back towards the reservoir, but along the ridge of the valley. Before long, I was rewarded with an excellent view of the reservoir. Obviously, I didn’t have a camera with me. I kept going, skirting more fields, while the path became less and less well-defined.

Having lost it altogether I climbed over a fence and out of a field and made my way through woods and over a couple of rocky streams. Eventually, I got to the pebble and boulder-strewn far shore of the reservoir. This is where things really got tricky. Further progress along the shore was prevented by the skirts of the trees reaching out the the water’s edge. So I went back into the treeline. This involved climbing over branches, pushing past boughs (of holly, no less), vaulting another fence. After coming to a seeming dead-end, I decided I could crouch-walk through a little gap back to the grey littoral. Which I did, and from there walked to the raised path at the northern end of the reservoir. Pausing to skim a few stones on the way.

At various points on this minor Oddysey I considered turning back, but I always concluded that I’d come this far, I might as well keep going. Having done it, I don’t feel the need to repeat the trip, although I would like to take some snaps from the vantage point at the southern end of the reservoir. However, with all the rain we’ve just had (it’s cleared up in the course of writing this, by the way), the boggy section at the valley floor could be a difficult ask (as they say in the world of football punditry).

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On my way to being on my way

So that’s it – I’m flying out to South Korea on Sunday. Here’s what happened.

I had an e-mail from the recruiter last night saying not to worry about the transcripts being late, just send what I’ve got and bring the transcripts with you. So I went on to DHL’s website (which, although garish, seems more helpful than FedEx’s) and booked a pick-up for my documents (which I was told to express courier to the recruiter). The time of the pick-up was given as Thursday – ie, tomorrow.

In the morning – well, whaddya know? – my transcripts arrived. Then later in the day, so did DHL. I walked out with my envelope to the guy in the van – who then proceeded to be confused. My manila envelope should have been a plastic DHL bag – although how I’m supposed to acquire one at two o’clock in the morning at home, I don’t know. The labels I’d printed off at the end of the booking process weren’t ones he seemed to be familiar with. And his electronic gadget thingy quoted an account number even though I don’t have one (another reason for choosing DHL).

I waited patiently while he sorted himself out, then off he drove. Before that, though, he did say that my sealed transcripts would be opened by customs. Thereby un-making them sealed. My initial feeling about this is that it won’t be an issue: after all, the people in Korea – customs, recruiter, immigration – must have dealt with this situation before. If it is, then I’m bringing two extra sealed transcripts with me, so …

I went back inside and e-mailed the recruiter again. A little later he rang to ask whether I could get on a flight at 2pm tomorrow. I said, Er, er … er, I was hoping for a little more time to get ready. He hung up to speak to the school, then rang back and said, How about 2pm on Sunday? I said, OK. As they’re KLM flights, I’ll be going via Amsterdam. He’ll pick me up from Incheon Airport on Monday then take me to meet the director of the school in Ansan – so he’s advised me to look as smart as possible.

Incheon is about 20-30 miles west of Seoul (and the location of the country’s main airport) and Ansan is a similar distance south of Incheon. Ansan is a city of about two thirds of a million people and constitutes part of the Greater Seoul area, which has a population of about 21 million – nearly half the country’s populace. The city is also on Line 4 of the Seoul subway system.

I don’t know yet how soon I’ll be at the now legendary chalk-face, but I’m expecting – hoping for – a day or two at the school observing classes. And before that I’ll have to get my visa – which is likely to involve a trip to Japan.

I’ll let you know how scared I am another time.

[If it’s of any interest to future or even current generations, here’s the tracking schedule I got from DHL’s website:

September 13, 2006   14:21   Manchester – UK   Shipment picked up

September 13, 2006   18:44   Manchester – UK   Departing origin

September 13, 2006   19:34   Manchester – UK   Departed from DHL facility in Manchester – UK

September 13, 2006   21:49   East Midlands – UK   Arrived at DHL facility in East Midlands – UK

September 14, 2006   02:31   East Midlands – UK   Departed from DHL facility in East Midlands – UK

September 14, 2006   04:39   Cologne – Germany   Arrived at DHL facility in Cologne – Germany

September 14, 2006   06:36   Cologne – Germany   Departed from DHL facility in Cologne – Germany

September 15, 2006   09:33   ICN – Gateway – Korea, Republic Of   Departed from DHL facility in ICN – Gateway – Korea, Republic Of

September 15, 2006   11:16   Inchon – Korea, Republic Of   Arrived at DHL Facility

September 15, 2006   12:57   Inchon – Korea, Republic Of   With delivery courier

September 15, 2006   14:48   Inchon – Korea, Republic Of   Shipment delivered]

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