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Adventure PAUL in Costa RicaBefore you take off to the beautiful beaches, tropical forests, or central valley of Costa Rica, here are a few things you should know about living and working here.

I develop websites for a living and all I need to operate my business is a laptop computer and a high speed Internet connection. There are thousands of people like me (probably more) who also work remotely. This list is specifically for you mobile entrepreneurs, although anyone traveling to Costa Rica for the first time should find this post helpful.

Here goes…

You can stay up to 90 days

To stay longer than that, you have to border-hop and reenter the country with a new stamp for a fresh 90 days. I’ve read that now you have to stay outside of the country for 3 days now before re-entering. This is Costa Rica’s attempt to prevent “perpetual tourists”. If you plan on living here long term or permanently, check with your country’s embassy and take the proper steps.

The airline WILL CHECK to make sure your return ticket is within 90 days. Otherwise they get fined by the country for letting people in. My name was called by the airline to approach their counter before my flight to San Jose because the flight attendant was having a hard time doing math correctly. She originally added the number of days I was staying incorrectly and I had to show her that I was only staying 84 days.

If I were you, I wouldn’t plan on staying 89 or 90 days. To avoid potential problems, I’d give yourself a week buffer (or at least a few days) so that if your flight was cancelled or delayed, you are not in the country illegally.

You need a return ticket to enter the country

Additionally, an onward ticket elsewhere works too. For example, a ticket to Brazil (or any other country) is fine instead of a return ticket, as long as it’s within your allowed 90 days.

Gone are the days when you can just enter a country on a one way ticket and figure out your next step later like when we were young! A lot of countries around the world are cracking down on this. I’ve heard of people entering countries with a one way, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s cheaper to have an onward ticket than it is to be denied entrance into a country and have to fly back.

Renew your passport if it’s close to expiring

Did you know that many countries won’t let you enter if your passport is going to expire within a year? And there are even a few countries that won’t let you enter if your passport is going to expire within 2 years!

I did not find that Costa Rica had any mention of this on their official website, but to err on the side of caution, you should renew your passport before you go if it’s close to expiring. Plus, you never know where your life will lead you, so better to have a fresh 10 years ahead of you.

The Internet is slower

Let me repeat that. The Internet is slower. Before I came to Costa Rica, I e-mailed the landlord of the house I rented to inquire if they had high speed Internet and she said yes.

You must know that definition of “high speed Internet” is different in other countries outside of the US. In America, we take for granted our 60mbs Internet for $30 a month, but that doesn’t exist in Costa Rica.

When I arrived at my house in La Garita, Alejuala, I discovered that “high speed Internet” in Costa Rica meant 1-2mbs. And barely that sometimes. I doubled the speed to “4mbs” for an additional $10/month, but the slower speed still takes some getting used to.

I find similarity between the slower pace of life here, and the slower Internet. I’m curious to see in our lifetime if faster Internet speeds around the world equate to a faster pace of life in those countries. Maybe speed of Life and Internet go hand in hand, as in, one causes the other. Or maybe they are both side effects of something else.

Regardless, if you require fast Internet to work like I do, before you rent a place in Costa Rica, e-mail the landlord and ask “How many mbs is your Internet?” and even “Who is your Internet provider?”. That way you will know ahead of time.

I am e-mailing a few landlords before relocating to a beach next month to find out what their Internet speed is and how fast I could upgrade if I wanted.

FYI – You will need at least 4-5mbs consistently to have stable Skype calls. Skype’s website says you only need 30kbs to have voice calls, but they are out of their freaking minds. Maybe if you like voice calls with a 10 second delay…

Download an offline GPS app for Costa Rica on your phone

I brought my Samsung Galaxy Note II, but I didn’t activate international roaming with Verizon Wireless. It’s too expensive, doesn’t work as well as it should, and it isn’t necessary. I’ll explain my phone set-up in a moment. But, understand that your Google Maps app, and most GPS apps, require an Internet connection to initially load the map and route. Once you do that, the route is stored temporarily in your cache, so you can continue to use it after you leave your Wifi spot. However, if you go off route, or require a new route, you will need Internet again to load the maps.

GPS is a free service provided by satellite, so the Location finding itself doesn’t need Internet, just the loading of maps. If Google actually kept a copy of the entire world map on your phone, you’d need a lot more storage space. This is why your app loads maps and routes as needed. However, I found an app that has Costa Rica’s entire country pre-loaded. This app allows me to use GPS from anywhere in the country without an Internet connection.

The app is: Costa Rica Travel Guide by Triposo

It allows for offline GPS in Costa Rica, has a currency conversion tool, and some built in travel guides.

How to use your American cell phone number in Costa Rica

Most of the methods I researched about how to use your US cell phone number in Costa Rica were outdated, so here’s an outline of my current setup. I use Verizon Wireless, which has an international roaming plan that would allow me to send/receive calls at $2.89/minute. Texts cost $0.05 to receive and $0.25 to send. Mobile data is something outrageous like $20/mb. They do have an international subscription feature you can add to your plan that gets these costs lower, but the expense wasn’t necessary as you’ll discover below from my current setup.

WARNING: Verizon Wireless DOES NOT allow you to turn off international roaming if you’d like to keep your cell service active. So immediately upon getting onto my flight from Ft. Lauderdale Airport, I turned my cell phone onto Airplane mode and it will remain in airplane mode for the duration of my stay in Costa Rica. I also turned off Mobile Data, just in case my phone got turned off of Airplane mode. God forbid, some apps start auto-updating at $20/mb!

In my telephone setup that you’ll read below, my phone is in Airplane mode with WiFi turned on.

FOR TELEPHONE CALLS

Verizon Wireless offers free call forwarding, and I have an unlimited minutes package, so forwarding my calls to a VOIP number was a no brainer. There are lots of options for VOIP, however, I’m already a Skype user, and they have servers world wide for fast connections, so I stuck with what I know.

First I purchased a Skype Number. It costs $60/year and they had a special for $30 for the first year when I purchased mine. By default, you have a free Skype Screenname when you join, but people can’t call that from telephones. I ordered a US number because I have unlimited calling from Verizon Wireless to USA. Even though I’m physically located in Costa Rica, it’s free to forward my calls to my Skype because of my US Skype number.

Second I purchased a Skype Calling Package for $2.99/month which allows me unlimited minutes to US & Canada numbers. They also offer an International package for $13.99/month to call To & From any country in the world. I communicate with everyone I work with overseas via Skype (screenname) or Google Hangouts, so I opted not to purchase the international package even though I think it’s a great deal.

Third I setup my Skype Number to “ringout as my cell phone number.” This means that when I call people, they see my Verizon Wireless phone number on the caller ID and not my Skype number, even though I’m technically calling them from my Skype number. I did this because 1) I’ve had my same phone number for over 10 years and it’s the only number I’d like to give out, and 2) people will recognize that it’s me calling and not some new phone number.

Fourth, I created a voicemail greeting on Skype. My Skype voicemail e-mails me whenever someone leaves me a message. Originally I had my Skype # forward to my Google Voice number (which I use for voicemail in the US) to that I could continue to use my same voicemail service, but that became complicated because of how long calls ring before being forwarded. Not every call was reaching my Google Voicemail. So while I’m outside of the country, I use my Skype Voicemail, and when I’m back in the country, I’ll be back to using my Google Voice for my voicemail again.

With this telephone setup, I can send and receive calls as normal from my same cell phone number, as long as I have an Internet connection. At my house in Costa Rica, I have WiFi, so I can use my cell phone as normal. When I’m away from the house, I have to rely on free WiFi signals to send and receive calls.

If I decide to get a local Costa Rica cell phone, I can also download Skype on that new phone and have the option of sending and receiving calls via my Costa Rican data connection. Alternately, without an app, I could dial a special Skype phone number in Costa Rica from any local phone line, and enter the telephone number I’d like to call. This re-routes my call to my Skype account so it appears as if I’m calling from my same US cell phone number.

FOR TEXT MESSAGING

I hate text messaging, so I wasn’t sad to see it go if there was no way around it. Fortunately/unfortunately, Verizon Wireless has a new service which allows me to receive text messages via WiFi connection.

In the “old days”, your phone had to actually be turned on and in service to receive text messages. Verizon allowed you to forward your calls if your phone was off, but not your texts. Your texts just remained in queue for a few days until you turned your phone back on or had a signal again and then they’d all pour in at once. This meant that I wouldn’t receive text messages so long as my phone was in airplane mode, and by the time I was back in the State, most of the texts in my queue (less the last few day) would have expired.

Note: There are third party apps that can forward your text messages. An app wouldn’t work for me, however, because I have my cell phone physically with me in Costa Rica. Those apps I’m talking about require your phone to receive the message first, which my phone would not do since I have it in airplane mode.

The Solution… Verizon Wireless has a new software (very, very new) called Verizon Messages which basically allows you to send/receive text messages from a WiFi connection on your phone, tablet, or desktop. FINALLY!! Woohoo! Even though I hate text messaging, I wouldn’t want to miss anything important that was sent to me via text.

Here’s the link: Verizon Messages App (Android/iPhone)

In order for this to work, you need to replace your default Messaging app on your phone with the Verizon Mesages app. DO THIS FIRST. It took a hot minute for me to get this working because I downloaded the program to my desktop computer first, and it wouldn’t connect. As it turns out, I had to Activate the service first by downloading the mobile app. Then I could connect via my desktop program. So do this BEFORE you leave the country.

With a fast enough WiFi connection in Costa Rica, you should have no problem using the setup I described above and your friends, family, and clients will have no idea that you’re thousands of miles away in a different country. Unless you’re like me and write posts about Things To Know About Living and Working Remotely in Costa Rica. Then they’ll read your blog and figure it out. 🙂

Money conversion can get expensive

Costa Rica uses colones (CRC) as their currency. The conversion rate is about 540 CRC = $1 USD.

DO NOT CONVERT A LOT OF MONEY AT THE AIRPORT

You should convert a little bit of money so that you don’t enter Costa Rica without any colones to your name, but not too much because the exchange rate at the airport blows. I laughed when I saw a sign that read “NO FEE CONVERSION” because the “fee” is built into their conversion rate.

The conversion rate should be about about 540 CRC per $1 USD like I mentioned above, but the place at the airport only offers 460 CRC per $1 USD. So if you converted $1,000 to colones at the airport you’d receive 460,000 CRC. If you do it elsewhere at the normal rate of 540, you’d receive 540,000 CRC. That’s a difference of 80,000 colones which is about $148 USD. That’s a big freaking difference on $1,000! “NO FEE CONVERSION” my ass! That’s almost a 15% conversion fee!

I converted $200 at the airport because I didn’t want to leave empty handed. I had read that most everywhere in Costa Rica accepts USD (which has proven to be true so far), but I wanted to play it safe and have some colones in my pocket. The guy at the airport exchange counter tried to convince me to convert $400 for a “better rate”. The better rate was only marginal.. 463 CRC per $1 USD, so I said “no thank you.” Then the guy says, “Only $200 though? You will go through $200 easily in one day in Costa Rica.” to which my response was, “I better not! Just $200.”

Note that if you choose to spend American USD at places in Costa Rica, you will sometimes receive changes in colones because they will need to break a $1 bill, or they won’t have enough American currency to give you change. Typically when you deal with vendors, the accepted standard exchange rate is 500 CRC per $1 USD. They aren’t trying to rip you off, it’s just easier to do math at 500 CRC than 540 CRC. The difference is only $0.07 per $1 which isn’t a lot on a small scale. I keep meticulous track of my money though, and for me every cent counts. $0.07 on the dollar is 7%. So that’s why I choose to pay for things here in colones.

For the sake of math and quick conversion in my head, I use 500 CRC per $1 USD.

Another trick I learned is to “double it and remove the 000’s”.

For example, if the sign reads “18,000 CRC” then double it to “36,000” and remove the “000’s” and you get $36 USD.

Alternately you can reverse that trick and calculate USD to CRC by “half it and add 000”.

For example, if you have $10 USD, then half it to “5” and add “000” and you get “5,000 CRC”

US BANKS WANT TO FUCK YOU

Did you know that your US bank will most likely charge you an additional flat fee AND a conversion transaction fee as a percentage on top of that?

Like I said, I am meticulous with tracking my money. You don’t get rich by giving away 3% or 7% just to spend your own money. So I called my banks to find out what their international fees were. Here they are for the three banks I use.

Capital Bank

This bank charges .80% on everything, plus an additional:

-1% – ATM withdrawals
-1% – Signature transaction (running card as credit)
-2% – Debit transactions (where you type in your PIN # at a merchant)

Wells Fargo

This bank charges:

-$5 ATM fee (flat fee w/ no additional percentage)
-3% transaction fee on Debit/Credit card purchases

PayPal

This bank charges:

1% Conversion Fee on everything (ATM, Debit, Credit transactions) plus:
-$1.50 fee on ATM withdrawals

*PayPal charges $1.50 per ATM withdrawal EVERYWHERE, even in America. They don’t have a relationship with ANY bank or ATM machine to allow free withdrawals which means that you pay the $1.50 at any ATM, since there’s no physical PayPal banks or PayPal ATMs anywhere. In comparison to another digital bank, Simple.com has a relationship with Allpoint®, the country’s largest surcharge-free ATM network, which means that all of their 55,000 ATMs are transaction free for Simple customers. Why does PayPal not do this? That’s a topic for a different blog post…

WHAT CONVERSION RATE DO BANKS USE?

Don’t forget that transaction fees aren’t the only thing that can eat away at your money. The CONVERSION RATE matters too. I discovered that most banks have not changed their rate for USD to CRC in 8 years. It remains at 520 CRC per $1 USD since 2006. However, I’d call your individual bank and find out what rate they use because things might change, especially given the ongoing decline of the USD.

I discovered that PayPal uses MasterCard’s Global Exchange Rates to determine their exchange rate. However, Costa Rica is not listed on that. I called MasterCard’s 1-800 customer service number to inquire about Costa Rica’s rate, which automatically transferred me back to PayPal customer service. So I asked what their current exchange rate is for Costa Rica and the PayPal representative did not know.

Here’s what I found on MasterCard’s FAQ:

Q: As an Issuer, how can I access the rates for other currencies not displayed on the Currency Conversion Tool?

A: Issuers can retrieve the MasterCard exchange rates for other currencies from the T057 Currency Conversion Rate File. To sign up for receipt of the T057 Currency Conversion Rate File, please contact your Customer Support liaison.

I asked PayPal for their T057 Currency Conversion Rate File. The PayPal representative had never heard of it. I asked her to do some research and ask her superiors. Finally after 20 minutes she comes back and informs of that the rate hasn’t changed from 520 CRC per $1 USD since 2006. So that’s the best answer I could receive and it was good enough for me.

DON’T FORGET ATM FEES

Since none of my banks have physical locations in Costa Rica, I am also required to pay the ATM Fee on whatever ATM I use. For example, most ATMs charge between $2-6 to retrieve money with a card from a different bank.

HOLY SHIT THIS GETS EXPENSIVE

Here’s an example of how much it costs to remove $200 USD from an overseas ATM that charges $3.00/transaction for using their ATM machine. This is how much I net from my $200 withdrawal:

  • Capital Bank: $193.40
  • Wells Fargo: $192.00
  • PayPal: $193.50

GO WITH YOUR LEAST EXPENSIVE BANK

If one bank differs drastically from another with regards to transaction fees and currency exchange rate, you might want to transfer money to the bank with the lowest overall fees and primarily use that debit card overseas.

In my case, PayPal charges the least amount of fees to use my own money. The difference is only $0.10 between Capital Bank and PayPal in the example above, but PayPal is the bank I use most anyway so this works out okay for me.

However, keep money in all your banks so you have access to your funds in the event of an emergency, a card gets shut off, or you lost a card.

MANY PLACES IN COSTA RICA TAKE CARD

I like to keep a little cash on me, especially in a foreign country, but I’ve discovered that many places take cards as payment. Even small sodas (restaurants) have machines now-a-days. Not as many places in Costa Rica accept cards as compared to the US, however, most Costa Rican grocery stores, restaurants and tourist attractions do. Most hotels will also have merchant services for hotels and ATMs in-hotel – allowing you to use your credit card freely there.

Call your banks to inform them you are leaving the country

Even if you’re not like me and you don’t care about transaction fees or conversion rates, you should call your bank anyway before you leave the country to inform them of your travels so the bank can notate your account. This will (hopefully) prevent your bank from flagging your card as stolen. At this point, most of us have had our debit or credit cards turned off by our banks for some reason or another, so informing them of your overseas travel will help prevent problems before they happen.

Learn these conversions to make your life easier

Like the rest of the civilized world, Costa Rica is on the metric system. Gas is sold in liters. Directions are given in kilometers. Here are some quick conversions to help you succeed in Costa Rica:

  • 1 kilometer = .62 miles
  • 1 meter = 3.28 feet
  • 100 centimeters = 39.37 inches
  • 1 liter = .26 gallons
  • 1 milliliter = .033 ounces
  • 1 pound = .453 kilograms

Costa Rica uses the same electric outlets as the USA

You can use your same plugs for your cell phone, laptop, and appliances in Costa Rica as the US. You won’t need a converter. However, you might grab one 3-prong to 2-prong converter if you’ll be staying at in an old house in Costa Rica that doesn’t have 3-prong outlets. Most do that I’ve seen though.

Your health insurance provider might cover you here too

I use Blue Cross & Blue Shield of NC which provides coverage for when I travel. The coverage is limited, however, to certain doctors and facilities, most of which center around San Jose in Costa Rica. I found out which doctors and hospitals I am covered in BEFORE I left and saved the list to my phone/computer for quick reference.

Before you go purchasing “International Health Insurance” from a 3rd party carrier, call your current health insurance company to find out what your coverage is overseas.

Also be sure to ask, “Does my coverage include emergency evacuation to a US hospital?”

Hopefully you won’t need that, but it’s nice to know that the option is there in an emergency.

Costa Rica has universal healthcare. If you decide to stay here for the long term, you should look into getting onto their universal healthcare policy. I read that it costs less than US insurance and it allows you to get healthcare anywhere. However, it’s not something you’d consider for a short visit.

Your life insurance provider might NOT cover you here

Did you know that your life insurance has restrictions on where you can die? Check your policy or call your insurance agent before you leave the country to find out if you’re covered.

I use AAA Life Insurance which covers me worldwide. I discovered, however, when I was shopping for new life insurance, that many companies DO NOT cover you overseas, or they have a limited list of countries in which they provide you coverage.

I was speaking to an insurance agent in Asheville NC who asked me where I was going this year. I said, “Costa Rica.. Philippines.. Thailand…” and started naming off a few places on my agenda. She came back a few days later after doing some research and told me that in some countries, only PARTS of the country are covered. In the Philippines for example, there is a very small region where I am permitted to die and my beneficiaries can still collect.

Who knew insurance companies could be so difficult? (kidding.. we all know)

Many Costa Ricans speak English, but probably just as good as your Spanish

I speak Spanish better than I understand it. This means that I can ask someone in perfect Spanish where the bus stop is and then not understand a word they say in response. The language barrier hasn’t proven to be a problem yet. I’m a fast learner and lots of people speak English. However, you can’t rely on that.

My advice to you is that you should learn the fundamentals. Numbers, directions, colors, etc. Especially learn how to say words relating to your dietary restrictions or medical conditions if you have any. If you can’t eat pork, for example, you better know how to ask if something has pork in Spanish.

Tourists pay more for the same things than locals

This might be obvious, and it’s also true of anywhere in the world. Tourists, or foreigners living in Costa Rica, traditionally are charged higher for the same items then Costa Ricans.

A good way to avoid this from happening is to 1) shop at places where the prices are listed on the menu or on the items, and 2) ask what the price is ahead of time. It’s hard to negotiate the price of a sandwich after you ate it.

Everything is negotiable

This isn’t a Costa Rica lesson.. it’s a life lesson. So remember it: Everything is negotiable.

If you don’t like the price of something, don’t buy it. Make an offer. Or better yet – just say no and let the merchant negotiate with themselves. Suddenly the price lowers when you begin to walk away.

Not just souvenirs or food is negotiable.. so is lodging. If you use a website like AirBnB.com (like I did) to find a house for rent, don’t be afraid to e-mail the host directly and see if they offer a better rate depending on the time of year. In the slower season (summer time), housing becomes extremely affordable and negotiable.

Costa Rica is small (geographically)

The Pacific Coast is about 500 miles long and the Caribbean Coast is about 300 miles. You could get to most places in Costa Rica in a day’s drive. Some of the roads are not that great though. Highways do not connect everywhere yet so you will take small roads and that takes a lot of time. In general though, I have been able to get around by bus very easily throughout the central valley.

You can drink the water

Despite what Dave Matthews says, you CAN drink the water! It’s not advised to drink the water in most Central American countries, unless you’re a fan of projectile vomiting and diarrhea, but the water is clean in Costa Rica.

Just to be on the safe side, I purchased bottled water my first day (expensive!), and then the next day I started with one glass from the tap to “test the waters”. Even though water might be clean and drinkable, water from different countries has different bacteria and probiotics that could affect your stomach differently than the water you’re accustomed to. So I started with one glass, the next day had two, and I had zero negative effects. So now I exclusively drink tap water to spare the expense of bottled water.

Just to be on the safe side, I recommend that you start with one glass your first day and move up incrementally before committing to a gallon a day. Or maybe you don’t drink that much water anyway.. but I drink a LOT of water.

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That’s all for now. I’ll update this list with more great information as I learn it. If you have any suggestions or advice about living and/or working in Costa Rica, leave me a comment below.

Share this post with your friends who are considering traveling to Costa Rica.

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Update August 12, 2014:

Costa Rica doesn’t use street addresses

In America we’re accustomed to hearing “124 Example Street, City, State Zip Code” and then putting that address into our GPS and easily driving there. In Costa Rica, there are no street addresses. So finding places becomes a challenge, especially if you’re not familiar with the area. You have to be a little creative sometimes.

So if they don’t have addresses, what do they use?

Giving directions sounds something like this.. “In La Garita heading towards Atenas, go until you see the soccer field on your left. The house is 200 meters past that on the left.”

Or sometimes like this… “At the church in the town center, head towards the giant tree, then take a right and go about 300 meters and you will see a sign on your left.”

Are you kidding me??

haha no! I’m serious! That’s what directions are like here. There are some areas that actually have street names, but there are rarely street signs, and no-one ever refers to things by street name. My friend taught me about this and I said, “That is a bad way to do things.”

There really is no debating it.. the system of street addresses here is BAD, but I work with what I’ve got.

In the future, as more and more people in Costa Rica have Androids, iPhones, and GPS units in their car, we might see a bigger adoption of the use of actual street addresses.. but that’s still a long time coming because giving directions like I described above is part of the culture here.

Update Sep 1, 2014:

Food is crazy expensive

I’m serious.. I was NOT expecting how expensive the cost of eating in this country is. A can of peas and carrots cost $2-3. Name brand potato chips can run you up to $5-6. Mediocre sushi will cost you $50-60 for a dinner for two. I was definitely thinking “southeast Asia prices” in regards to eating here, but I was mistaken.

Average meal at a soda for a hamburger and fries is about $4-6 dollars in the central valley and $5-7 near the beaches. And that’s just eating in dive restaurants. A fine dining meal will run you almost similar prices as USA. $13-20+ for a steak dinner. $10-20 for seafood (depending on the fish of course).

I might talk about the cost of living too much in this post, but that’s what many people are interested in knowing before they arrive.

Click the photo below to see my Comida de Costa Rica album on Facebook.

Comida de Costa Rica

Central Valley weather is perfect. Beaches get hot!

I just arrived in Playas del Coco in Guanacaste, Costa Rica a few days ago and I was surprised at the heat! Having lived in La Garita for the month of August and experiencing perfect temperature weather, I was expecting something similar here in Coco, but I was mistaken. It’s almost uncomfortably hot here.. and that’s coming from a guy that LOVES hot weather.

What I’ve learned in Coco is that exercising outdoors happens before 8am or after 5pm. During the day, I work out of my house with two fans running, every window and the front door open for a draft. I have an air conditioner in this condo, but using it during the day time is futile. It’d cost a fortune in electric fees and it’s barely more comfortable than keeping everything open. Although, I have learned a trick from PortableACNerd.com, it is to turn on the unit when the temperature is at it’s coolest, it is easier for the air conditioner to maintain a cool temperature rather than to bring it down.

Now I realize first hand why expats gravitate towards the Central Valley. That “perfect weather” I read about only exists there. Don’t get me wrong.. these beaches are BEAUTIFUL and I am enjoying my stay here. I am just trying to write objectively about what to expect because you might not be able to work from a bathing suit like me.

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