On the outside, looking in - a week with expats in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
I have just returned from 3 weeks in Mexico, and spent a week in the town of San Miguel de Allende, meeting with expats who have chosen a life outside of the USA & Canada. When you see your daily life from the outside, looking in, you get a perspective that is quite frightening. Let’s talk about the expat phenomenon and what drives someone to leave the country of their birth, in search of greener pastures.
I have spent half of my life living in Australia and half of my life living in the USA. I carry both passports and both citizenships. It can be challenging, particularly when you travel to a foreign country. Do you consider yourself an American? Do you consider yourself an Australian? What passport should I enter the country under? Will I get preferential treatment depending on what citizenship I identify myself as?
Since I travel a lot, I have come to the conclusion that the truth is that my allegiance has to be to the sovereign country of me. I don’t believe that any person should willingly give up their own independence to any statist government. Maybe that is the anarcho-capitalist in me, but the reality is that all countries are guilty of gross mistreatment of their citizenry and their visitors. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find examples of things your country is doing that make you cringe. Yet to follow blind allegiance to that country seems naïve. Often those that do this have no alternative place to move to, or alternative citizenship, etc.
Don’t get me wrong – the USA has been good to me and my family. For that reason, I willingly took citizenship. It wasn’t imposed to me because of some lucky result of where I was born. I chose to take it, standing in front of a federal judge, with hand on heart, and I pledged allegiance to a constitution. I still believe in that constitution. What I don’t agree with is how the US government has diluted the interpretation of that constitution to suit greed and power of individuals or collective cartels of individuals. Consequently the more I see the implementation of the constitution, the less I am convinced that the document is respected as the rule of law. It seems that the US government have become experts in legal hacking of their own laws, creating a shadow government that abides not by the will of the people, or the rule of law, but by how they can find ways around the laws in order to implement whatever policies they deem to be in their own best interest.
Why the exodus?
It doesn’t surprise me that so many are leaving the USA. Many have chosen to renounce their US citizenship. The most public example I can think of this is Andrew Henderson of Nomad Capitalist, who renounced over a year ago now, and yet lives a successful, happy and wealthy lifestyle in multiple countries. His strategy of three domiciles and/or citizenships provides him a way to follow the sun so to speak, and his adventures are more like the life of Ernest Hemmingway.
But there are also hundreds of thousands of less public figures that have chosen the expat lifestyle. They realize that there are around 200 independent countries on this planet. Countries that share the same air, water, land, sea, sunshine, etc. with each other - where no one country is attempting to overshadow another. No one country is a utopia of existence, but life isn’t a Boolean experience either. There isn’t a correct or incorrect decision on where to live – there is no true/false result here. You go where you are treated best.
Many found that their treatment in the USA wasn’t in their best interest. The obvious considerations are things like tax policy, but really that is missing the point. We all have to pay money for services that we may only get from public services or utilities. These are services that we cannot live without and usually they don’t come with competition to enable us to choose from a variety of suppliers. For example, the United States Dollar as a means of currency is only real option for day to day life in the USA. You pay with it, you receive it in your paycheck. You cannot ask your employer to pay you in rubles or euros. And you cannot expect your local Starbucks to accept Bitcoin or physical gold as a form of payment for your Venti Latte. You rely on the stability of the $USD for your life. If the efficacy of that currency is weakened, you can’t afford as many lattes as you would previously have had. History shows us that it has fallen so far, that it is a shadow of its former self. However you have no choice – it is the legal tender and currency of much of the western world.
We also rely on government to supply the bulk of our public education services. Yes, there are private education options that you can spend money to participate in, however you will still have to pay for the public education options because they are funded by taxation. If the quality of the public education options are poor or are underfunded by government use of tax revenue, your child’s education is weak. They won’t be able to compete with other education options worldwide and this erodes the competitiveness of the collective population of where you are. Consider the value of an education in sub-Saharan Africa vs. your US education and which would you prefer?
During our working life you have probably paid money into social security. This is often taken from your paycheck before you get to choose it, and we become tethered to the notion that in our older age the government will take care of us. I personally don’t subscribe to giving up my control to any third party, including a government, but many do not have the choice. They paid into the social security Ponzi scheme for decades and live in hope that the day they retire, they will get some fixed income from the government that will keep them fed, with a roof over their heads and maybe able to play a round of golf or two with their friends. Still a day never goes by without someone on some financial media program explaining that social security is bankrupt, won’t be there after 2030 and that everyone should have an alternative plan like a 401k or IRA, because they won’t get much on social security if at all.
Finally there is medical care. It is obvious to all of us that the US medical system is a corrupt cartel of criminals – driven mainly by the healthcare providers, predominately the hospitals. When a system exists that can extort the weakest among us, in a time that we are on a stretcher, and the game is just how much a hospital can get away with before someone tells them to back off, you have a problem. The reality is that if a hospital can charge $100,000 for a procedure that would commonly be done for $10,000 they will until they are told to stop. Who has the power to tell them to stop? Most likely it is insurance companies because they have the power of large wholesale purchasing, so the general system works only for those that can afford to carry insurance. For those that have insurance, they can use the insurance company’s pre-negotiated contract rates to keep a hospital honest, reducing the $100,000 charge to $20,000. But then the hospital finds ways to charge for services that are outside of that contract negotiation directly to the patient, so the result is that what should have been an affordable trip to the hospital often ends up bankrupting the patient. Sure, they don’t die. But their financial future does.
You might walk down the street in your home town and see nice pavement, beautiful houses, people driving nice cars, great restaurants, shopping malls, etc. It sounds idyllic. Like a Hollywood movie. But behind the façade of that vision, is a world built on debt, future enslavement, bankruptcies, foreclosures and fear. Where any of the workers who created that beautiful community fear that when they stop working or are unable to continue to work due to age, that they are dispatched out to fend for themselves with little public support. And this, despite devoting their allegiance and patriotism to the country of their birth or the country of their chosen citizenship, while the rich & powerful have accumulated the bulk of the wealth of the nation and excluded them from participation.
Getting sad, depressed, angry…. Or get busy
My wife and I carry Australian passports as well as US passports. Australia was the country of our birth. We always thought that when we choose to stop working, we could always return to Australia and retire there. It was a great vision of hope to have, when you are having a bad day at the office or dealing with some life challenge.
That dream was destroyed since about 2008. My wife has family in Australia, so each year we would fly that 15 hour trans-Pacific route from the USA to Australia and spend a few weeks with her family in the small town of Mt. Gambier in South Australia. It isn’t a town that has an international airport, so you transfer through the major hubs in Australia. For us that has typically been Sydney or Melbourne. We normally stay overnight in Sydney before flying out the next day to the USA, so we get a small view of that large city before leaving Australia. Often it is a photograph of your home country that is cemented into your subconscious as it is the last thing you see before boarding the silver tube and emerging back in LAX or SFO.
Each time we transit through those large cities we see the demise of the Australia we were born in. A country of only 25 million people should have massive natural resources to get itself through any hard times. But in 2008, when the world was dealing with the “Global Financial Crisis”, Australia was in a resource boom. This was fueled by demand for natural resources from China who were servicing the cheap product needs of the USA and Europe. When a population chooses to search on Amazon, sorting the results by “Price, lowest first” you know that China wins. They can make stuff cheaper than anyone else, but in order to make stuff, they need raw materials. Australia brought in so much income from exporting its natural resources, that it really never felt the effect of the GFC.
People lived a rich life. They got access to low interest rate money from worldwide banks, and they bought cars they could never think they could afford, big screen TVs, “McMansion” houses, they moved up to the deluxe apartment, they had vacations with the family. This was a time when a truck driver could make $180,000 a year salary working for a mine, moving raw materials from mine to shipping port. And with that all the businesses that serviced the needs of the miners, truck drivers, shipping companies, etc. all raised their prices because they could. Soon an average small house in the Sydney suburbs became a $2 million house. A city with a population of around 5 million people, had a real estate price that was about 8x the same average house price of a 5 million population city in the USA (ie. Phoenix), which has average prices around $250K. Yet incomes were not 8x more.
How was this funded? People sold their future to banks for debt. They wanted to impress their friends, move to where the jobs were, put their kids in better schools, etc. and they didn’t care about the debt. The Australian economy was in surplus and continued for about 25 years. No one ever thought the music would stop.
But it did. In about 2015, China slowed down their demand for natural resources. In many cases the miners sold the rights of mining out for money up front rather than looking long term, and could not realize the income that they once had anymore. Australia discovered large deposits of liquid natural gas and yet could not extract wealth that went to the population because of poor trade deals with their customers. What did the government do? I mean the country was about to go into a tailspin economically and the average Australian had a 200:1 debt to income ratio. They clearly could not service their debt, and Australian bankruptcy laws didn’t allow for Australian citizens to shirk their obligations to pay that debt back.
They followed in the same direction that they got around the GFC. They went to their Asian customer base (mainly China and India) and they asked them, “If you don’t need as much raw material, what other offering do we have that you might be interested in?”. There was one answer.
Immigration. The Asian countries had populations that were 50x larger than Australia. However Australia had vast amounts of land. The Australian government opened up immigration to their Asian customers, and allowed millions to emigrate to Australia. Each year, they added about 500,000+ new Australians to the population. Each bringing in a suitcase of cash with them, providing that quick infusion of capital to the Australian economy. The mass immigration boom drove housing prices up further as demand would increase pricing. This meant that the Australian homeowner could once again dip into the magical equity in their home, further obtaining a line of credit on their future, to get money and pay those pesky bills or refinance one debt out for another. They didn’t remove debt – they deferred it. Meaning they just further sold their future down the line.
Australia opened up their education system (particularly the tertiary education market) to more and more foreign students, and raised their yearly tuition fees north of $50,000. The local students could participate cheaper because they got subsidies, but the universities grew and grew, funded by this influx of Asian students. And the key reason behind this was an immigration policy that allowed a student to complete their 4 year degree and get a residency VISA to remain in Australia, often with the ability to bring their entire family over on that VISA. So the Chinese or Indian family could fund their child’s education and basically buy a passport by investment for the entire family.
City areas with universities started to transform to meet the needs of the local student population. Apartment buildings would spring up to the sky to house the students. Restaurants would open that would serve the food that the Asian students wanted. Stores would sell the products they were used to in their home countries. Soon all the road side signs would be in their native language first, and the language of the local country second. You see this as you drive around the ring road that circles Sydney airport. All the signs are in Mandarin Chinese first, and English second. What a strange message to send to Australia, a British Commonwealth country.
But didn’t this also happen to Hong Kong? It was also once a sovereign British territory. But when it gave up control to mainland China in 1999, it created a mass exodus of those that felt they would get poorer treatment from China than they had under British government, and often those with the money and capability to leave did – Canada being a popular target. If you visit the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, you don’t feel like you are in Canada. You feel that you are in Hong Kong.
This is the future of Australia. For Australian expats like my wife & I, to return to Australia would be similar to returning to a province of China. The China 2025 mission clearly includes infiltration of Australia and the second generation of Asian immigrants will take up positions of power in business, government, banking, etc. and we believe that the allegiance may not be to the new country – Australia, but to the country of their birth , China or India. The result is that a country with an economic disaster waiting to happen, and a demonstration of willingness to dilute its identity to the highest bidder is not a viable option to retire to, particularly when you are relying on public social security and healthcare to be there when you need it.
You see, my own plight and future is no different to anyone in the USA. Sure, if you have a lot of money you *might* get through it. But most don’t, or don’t have quite enough to live the quality of life that they want in their golden years.
So we look at other options, which brings me back to my recent experiences in hanging with expats in Mexico.
So much for patriotism
Growing up in Australia, the one thing that stood out when looking at the US people was their patriotism. It was a beautiful thing. The kids pledge allegiance to the flag at the start of each school day. Hand on heart, you would do the same before any major sporting event. It was a collective demonstration of a willingness to give up so much to the country that you loved; a beautiful thing.
My post here must appear to be a slap in the face to patriotism. The USA has done so much in the last 200 or so years to promote world peace, topple dictators, save countries from bullies, be the super hero of planet earth. Yet there are always two sides to every story. They say that the victors get to write the history, and that is so true. I watched the TV series by Oliver Stone recently, “The Untold History of the USA”, and it tells a very different story of history. It does appear to be politically influenced, but one has to consider all storytellers when it comes to history and it shows a systemic direction to influence foreign power that might benefit the USA. The same is true when you read or watch the tales of those on the inside who have come forth with their stories. John Perkins, who wrote “The Confessions of an Economic Hitman”, tells the story of how the CIA & NSA have manipulated foreign leaders to do their bidding, often at a human cost if they chose not to.
Blind allegiance to flag and country without considering all sides of the story is naïve. When I hear the speeches of guys like Adam Kokesh, you see that there is an undercurrent of frustration that many feel they have been lied to. This dilutes trust and with that, the willingness to give up one’s life to protect their country, starts to have less and less appeal. We can embrace and celebrate the troops for their tireless commitment, but do we not also honor them to tell the truth as to why they might give up their most valuable possession, their lives, in pursuit of something worthy? I particularly like the definition of “Warrior vs. Soldier” that Adam Kokesh makes, in that a warrior fights for what they believe in and a soldier blindly follows orders.
If forced to make a choice, I have to be the warrior for the sovereign country of me and my family. Thankfully technology has advanced to the point where international air travel is affordable, safe and reliable and you can take advantage of it. Of course, you need to get a passport to begin that journey.
Back to Mexico
Our southern neighbor shares so much natural ecology with the state I live in, Arizona. Growing up in a vast country of few inhabitants (Australia) we are all taught to love and respect nature. It is in the Australian DNA. So when given the chance to go south to see the natural wonder of Mexico, I embraced that. The US media tells so many lies about Mexico that anyone who goes there realizes is complete propaganda to stop US persons from venturing south. I love the phrase, “Over the hill, there be dragons” because it really tells the story of the US media and Mexico. Personally, I’ve never met a dragon in Mexico I didn’t like.
In 2018, my wife and I visited the town of Ajijic. It was mainly driven by this video I discovered on YouTube:
It gave us hope. We went there and saw an aging expat population that were fit, happy and healthy. Compared to the US retirement community, there wasn’t any noticeable obesity epidemic. No drug dependencies and no fear of being put in a nursing home by the kids. It was a community that worked together and loved it. They respected the locals and contributed to their well being, both with their money but with their time. The pace was slower – more Mexican – but the the quality of life was much, much higher. Someone living on $1,200 of social security could do so without a problem in Ajijic. But try doing that in Milwaukee or Boise.
The problem for us was that the average age was about 65 years old. We are just not there yet. We hoped that maybe there was a place that was suitable for younger ages. On our return, I scoured YouTube for other options. There were many, but one that continually came up was the town of San Miguel de Allende – a town that was a UNESCO World Heritage site, so for our 2019 trip we chose to check out San Miguel.
San Miguel de Allende
There are multiple sides to San Miguel. The most obvious one is the first thing you see when you arrive. A town that looks like something out of 15th century Spain. Cobblestone streets, beautiful colonial architecture, central town plaza, church spires, cathedrals, etc. This is a tourist destination – particularly for Mexicans. It is about a 4 hour bus ride north of Mexico City, where we left for it. A comfortable and inexpensive trip.
Although you immediately are overloaded with history and beauty, after a day or so you see another side of San Miguel. You realize that this is a “warts and all” town. Yes, it is beautiful. But don’t expect the same rough edges to be sandpapered down as you would get in the USA. The water supply is toxic, so you have to be really careful what you expose yourself to. Bottled water for everything – even brushing your teeth. The locals build up a resistance to this, but as everyone in our traveling party experienced, we all had some form of gastric event. And the locals love to party. That sounds great, but the problem is that they love fireworks and they celebrate any birth or religious holiday – often making stuff up as they go along. Every 30 minutes for 48 hours straight – day or night – someone unleashed what can only be described as a cannon going off in what appeared to be the neighboring house, making it impossible to get a good night’s sleep for the first 2 days we arrived. After a few days, I must admit I was pretty much over San Miguel.
But why was it that this was such a haven of expats? I thought that about 1 in 5 people there were expats. The truth is it is more like about 1 in 15, but still the expat community there is strong. I still needed to find out why they are here and where are they. After learning more about the town and realizing that like all cities there are “good” and “bad” parts of town, we realized we were not necessarily in the good part, hence being exposed to fireworks all day & night, and that once we started to explore and realize our mistake, we eventually corrected that. Thanks to real estate agents showing us around and finding quieter neighborhoods, we realized that San Miguel was much more than we had experienced. My faith started to be refreshed again.
I saw rich areas of town, artisan districts, suburbian quieter neighborhoods, etc. It all started to make sense now. I had to cast aside my first impressions and realize exactly what I was looking at.
Then I decided to reach out to the local expat community. I chose to contact a host of a great podcast that I listen to, “Borderless”. I would encourage you to check it out if you are interested. I found a way to contact the show host, James Guzman, and offered to take him out to lunch to meet him and learn more about San Miguel. To my surprise, he took me up on this offer. James is an awesome guy; someone who has spent so much of his life living abroad. Like so many of us in the USA, the 2008 financial crisis destroyed much of James’ original real estate ambitions, sending him to Spain to further his tertiary education in Madrid. James served in the military so he willingly exposed his own life to serving his country, yet his attempt to live the American dream (like has happened to so many) didn’t turn out as planned. To his credit, he leveraged his bilingual skills and after completing studies in Madrid, started working for luminaries in the world of alternative finance including working with Peter Schiff and building a bank in Barbados, working with Jeff Berwick in Acapulco, living in Columbia and currently moving to San Miguel to start multiple businesses including the Borderless Blog & Podcast.
James and I hit it off, and he invited me to visit with other expats who have a regular Friday night “Cigars and Mescal” evening at one of the local outdoor clubs. I jumped at that chance, and I must say that the people I met there were some of the nicest and friendliest people I’ve ever met. I met retirees, doctors, radio personalities, Bitcoin enthusiasts… everyone had a story to tell. I was there for five hours hearing their stories, telling mine, and I found my kin. It was like we all shared a similar philosophical reason for being in San Miguel. Most were US citizens, but they couldn’t prosper in the USA. But in San Miguel they were their own sovereign community – a community they could rely on. They shared what they learned with each other, they shared their knowledge with me. When I told them of some upcoming surgery I have to have, I got so many recommendations of who to see, where to get physical therapy, recovery experiences, etc. that I could NEVER get that level of unbiased information in the USA.
I left that night feeling that I made 30 new friends. And that I felt that I could come back and see them again and it wouldn’t be any different. This was a community built on strength and all the elements of a truly decentralized and local community that understood that they would thrive together and supported each other. This is the American ideal I want to get behind – the demonstration of the true American culture and personality that I sorely missed in the USA.
Welcome home. Now give me your money.
All good things must come to an end – at least temporarily and we returned back to the USA. It seemed that on the surface everything was fine. After calculating the total cost of our 3 week vacation, excluding the AirBnB costs that we had incurred from our previous AirBnB balance, the fact we stayed in nice hotels courtesy of credit card reward points, airline travel courtesy of credit card reward points and costs associated with medical imaging, etc. which I will get to on a future blog story (you won’t want to miss that one), our total costs of being in Mexico was about $1,500 for three weeks. The 20:1 exchange rate for Peso to USD is such a great gift that we could eat in 5 star restaurants for the same cost of a Subway sandwich in Phoenix.
We arrived in immigration at Phoenix airport. The officials were just plain nasty. One asked a really interesting question to us. “Do you own any home in Mexico?”. I had never heard that one before. I mean I’d love to be able to say YES and my hope is one day to say that. But the fact that they asked that question made me wonder, Why? I mean we file FBAR forms, deal with FATCA and other US legal requirements for having assets outside of the USA. But why is a home important? I still, to this day, don’t know why. But you are left with the negative experience in your subconscious mind.
Immediately on landing you come face to face with money. Uber trips in Mexico rarely cost us more than $3, but the first Uber trip from the airport to our home in Phoenix was $30. We get home and all appears to be in order, but there were a couple of “certified mail letters” that I had to pick up at the post office. Within about 24 hours, the costs of being home started to show themselves. $80 to fill up the car with gas, $40 to get food at a local eatery for 2 people, paying the gardeners $500, etc.
I picked up the certified mail letters at the post office, and to my surprise the local city government were taking me to court because they were alleging that I hadn’t paved an alley way at the rear of some rental properties that we owned. We believed we didn’t own the alley way and that the city would be responsible for its upkeep but that was not what the city believed. So I spent the next week dealing with my attorney, the city office, surveyors and assessors, etc. finally discovering that we actually did own the road, but that since some statute says that we have to provide unfettered access to utility companies, city officials, etc. on that road, we had to keep it in a certain condition (dust free) and that means paying $15,000 to reseal it. So by the time the first week was over, rather than looking back at the wonderful $1,500 3 week cost of being in Mexico, I was looking at close to $20,000 for one week back in the USA. Paying for something I don’t need, nor does my taxes cover.
That week is now drawing to an end. I’m becoming de-sensitized to the money extortion racket that is rampant in the USA now. Maybe I’m just getting used to it, but it answers a lot of questions as to why people act the way they do here. It is hard to make friends – not because people are not nice or good people. It is because they can’t spare anytime to build friendships with anyone unless maybe they can leverage their work or their business around it. Friendships become more “networking events” that focus on making contacts to make money rather than sharing common needs. People can’t visit each other anymore. The only time they have is when their biological needs to eat must be met, and so socialization is centered around meals. Meals become more and more important because they are an escape from work, and food is designed to be addictive rather than healthy. You see it everywhere – obesity is rampant. It shouldn’t be, but in a society that only socializes outside of work and family around food, it is not surprising.
People are forced to ration their time around their work because with the costs baked into US lifestyle, it is not surprising that so many of us have to live paycheck to paycheck. The small minority of US residents that have decided to find a way out of the work treadmill (the FI movement) focus on some mythical “retirement” thing that really isn’t going to deliver what they want, but they need hope – they need a reason to put themselves through all of this, find ways to avoid extortion and regain their freedom. The problem is that their freedom can’t be retained for very long unless they choose to live remotely in some prepper fueled bunker, protecting the treasure they worked so hard to acquire, while some Wall Street broker is looking to extract fees from pointless transactions as they churn the nestegg down to a sliver of its former self. Meanwhile fearing the long arm of Uncle Sam, wanting more and more tax revenue and offering less and less services.
God forbid they get sick and have to rely on the US medical system. Once you exit the workforce, you are on your own buddy – you pay your own health insurance and welcome to world of $1,000+ per month premiums and $10K deductibles. The stress that we all share here results in high divorce rates, high drug dependency and suicide rates, and a general malaise of hope and lack of positivity to the future. Meanwhile our government runs its media pulpit like the USSR “Politburo” (here’s the Wikipedia link to what that is for our younger audience).
Jaded but hopeful
So you can sense I’m jaded. Is this the America I pledged allegiance to in front of that Federal court judge back in 2003? Is this the country I moved my family to, for a better life? In retrospect, yes not because the USA got better. It is because Australia got really bad and worse. I hate the fact that I have to be negative to the country of my birth, but while I was gone they ran that car off the road and over the edge of the cliff and I don’t see any hope in bringing her back again.
Can anyone survive and prosper in the USA if they are not in the 1% wealthy category? The illusion that the government will save us, and that Bernie Sanders with his free socialism thing is the answer is total BS. If you trust anything from government, you are a fool. They don’t give a crap about you. You have to give a crap about you. You must embrace being a loyal patriot to the sovereign country of YOU. That’s where you start. And yes, I will share many techniques to maintain some financial sustainability, but don’t get confused that this means to prosper economically. It is about making enough income to meet your burn rate, and it is FAR, FAR better for you to find ways to live a meaningful and rich life with a lower burn rate, but not like some fixed income recipient who has pushed their skills aside to become less valuable contributor and harder to rejoin the workforce once they discover that we work 75% of the time for personal ego reasons and not money. Once you realize that your personal ego needs are always going to be there, you realize that your need to work and provide service to others may not need to be associated with money, yet we all need to be needed and those pursuing early retirement better have a plan not only for money, but how they can satisfy that human need because it never goes away.
I leave you with this. If you have a day or a week or a month of horrible times, adverse events, money problems, relationship problems, etc. there is a better way. Take stock of why this is happening and if you can see that the country of your residence may be contributing in some way to the negative influences that create these outcomes, and there is little or no sign that this will be changing for the better in the future, think about my story of San Miguel de Allende. Think about a world of expats that are literally, “living the life” down there on pennies, have their freedom, have their own happiness and although not every story might be as rosy as the ones I encountered, statistics would show that they are probably 10x better off than those of us domiciled in a country where each day is a fight for survival. Life doesn’t have to be that way, as those that I met in San Miguel have taught me.
Mexico may not be for everyone. But maybe you should find your equivalent “Mexico” in whatever form that might be. Because having a shining light of hope out there, is probably what we all need to get through the day.
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