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Fort Frederick and Swami Rock

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A mighty promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, Swami Rock divides Trincomalee’s Back Bay from the Dutch Bay. It’s an impressive natural landmark and has always played an important role in the city’s affairs. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Swami Rock was home to the world-famous Temple of the Thousand Pillars. Currently, it’s occupied by the massive Fort Frederick.

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The Portuguese were the first colonial power to exert control over Sri Lanka, and the island couldn’t have found a more callous master. They razed temples and kovils wherever they could, erecting Catholic churches in their stead. Tragically, the Temple of the Thousand Pillars (Koneswaram Temple) was among the destroyed. This amazing building, which had led early explorers to pronounce Trinco the “Rome of the Orient”, was literally pushed off the rock and into the ocean below. Thanks, Portugal.

In 1628, the fort was erected. Control soon passed into Dutch, who expanded the construction and provided it with its current name. The French won it from the Dutch, and the British from them. Fort Frederick remained a British garrison until 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence. It’s still militarily active today, although open to tourists (and deer).

A visit to the fort was the first thing we did in Trinco, and we really enjoyed it. The Koneswaram Temple has been rebuilt, though the new construction is nowhere near as grand as the original. Luckily, the outstanding views over Trinco from the top of Swami Rock were something that not even the Portuguese could destroy. One tree, clinging to the cliff face, is burdened underneath flags and a huge number of light baskets tied onto the branches by couples hoping to get pregnant.

Even if you’re just in Trinco for the beaches, a visit to the Fort should definitely make its way onto your itinerary. We walked, but you can also hire a tuk-tuk to take you to the top.

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April 2, 2012 at 6:17 am Comments (0)

The Deer of Trinco

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Our first day in Trinco, while we were walking up Fort Frederick Road, we spotted a small deer in a park. Of course, deer are skittish, but we were unusually nearby and no “danger alarm” seemed to be going off in his head. Then we noticed another deer, walking alongside dogs, and another approaching a group of people. Then we saw someone petting one. Then I pet one. And after that, we watched a couple guys share their rice and curry with one. And that’s when I figured out there must be LSD in my water.

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But I wasn’t drugged, nor had we fallen into a rabbit hole and emerged in a Disney-esque land of wicked queens and singing chipmunks. Trincomalee, for whatever reason, has a large population of spotted deer who are perfectly comfortable and even sociable with humans. They’re especially prevalent inside Fort Frederick, but can be seen all throughout the city, foraging for grass and begging like dogs for food.

Cool. Every time you think you’ve basically figured out Sri Lanka, you get taken completely off guard.

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April 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm Comments (0)

The Besieged Fort of Jaffna

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In 1618, the Portuguese built an enormous fort in Jaffna, to help protect their hard-won property. Colonial-era forts are fairly common across the world, but Jaffna’s must be one of the very few which continued to see action until the late 20th century. Recently re-opened to visitors, it was one of the first things we checked out in Jaffna.

Jaffna Fort

The Portuguese ruled Jaffna until 1658, when the Dutch sailed into town and took over. De Nederlanders expanded the fort and, after a century and half of dominance in northern Sri Lanka, ceded control to the British in 1795. Years after the tumultuous colonial years, the fort was the scene of major battles during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The LTTE controlled it until 1995, when a 50-day siege by the army finally uprooted them. Walking around the fort today, it’s immediately obvious how incredible the fight must have been. Almost everything is in ruins.

We were far from alone during our visit to the fort, which has apparently become a popular spot for a Saturday stroll. I’m unsure, though, whether the people visiting were from Jaffna or further afield. Now that the war is over, the peninsula has become a hot tourist zone for Sri Lankans, who hadn’t been able to visit the northern section of their country for decades. Perhaps even more than the fort itself, Jürgen and I were big attractions among the visiting families, asked to pose for picture after picture. It was a surreal, humorous touch to what had been a rather sobering day out.

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March 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm Comments (2)

The Story of Sigiriya

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Prince Kassapa had always harbored a secret jealousy towards his half-brother Moggallana. Upon the demise of their father, King Dhatusena, the throne would surely pass to Moggallana, whose mother was the Royal Consort. Kassapa, on the other hand, had been born of a common concubine. But he was not the sort of youth to resign himself to his fate. “No”, he told himself in the palace at Anuradhapura one dark evening in 473 AD. “No, the throne must be mine“!

And so it came to pass. Kassapa secretly gathered the support of the King’s General, and then murdered his father by burying him alive. The next move was simple: dispose of the rightful heir. But Prince Moggallana, aware of the danger to his life, had fled with his men to Southern India, leaving the Kingdom of Anuradhapura in the hands of Kassapa.

Like most conspiratorial usurpers, Kassapa was a paranoid ruler who lived in constant fear of his brother’s inevitable return. He worried about low-lying Anuradhapura’s lack of natural defenses and resolved to move his royal city to a more secure place. A place which would be safe, even were Moggallana to return with thousands of men and hundreds of elephants. Kassapa found such a place 50 kilometers to the south, on the top of Sigiriya Rock.

Sigiriya-Rock

Construction on the King’s new home lasted seven years. Stairs were cut into the rock, whose face raises straight up for over a thousand feet, and the materials required for his royal palace were brought up piece by piece. From the top of Sigiriya, King Kassapa enjoyed a commanding view. In front of the rock, a breathtaking pleasure garden was installed, while his loyal subjects settled the land immediately behind. Here, from the top of his impregnable fortress, he waited for his brother’s return. “The Rightful King”, he sneered. He must return!

Moggallana didn’t keep Kassapa waiting for long. In 491, the legitimate heir to the throne returned from India, and strode into sight of Sigiriya Rock. Despite the effort it had taken to construct a palace safe from attack, Kassapa mustered his courage and, atop his war elephant, led his men into battle.

Unfortunately for him, Moggallana was a clever tactician. His men had softened the ground which the defending army would be crossing and, when Kassapa’s elephant reached the unsteady, muddy earth, it hesitated and began to back up. The King’s men saw him backpedaling and assumed that he had lost his nerve. They retreated for the safety of the rock, and left Kassapa alone. Seeing that his fate was sealed, the King dismounted his elephant, raised his sword, and brought it down into his own belly.

Sigiriya was the capital of Sri Lanka for fourteen years.

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March 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm Comments (7)

The Mysterious Forest Monastery of Ritigala

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The enigmatic remains of the Ritigala Monastery are tucked away on a mountain in the middle of a strict nature reserve. Difficult to reach and largely skipped by tourists, the archaeological site is the kind of place in which it’s easy to imagine Indiana Jones hunting for a fabled, lost treasure.

Indiana Jones Temple

The long and easy path through the monastery starts at the ancient steps of an enormous bath, which was probably used by the monks to cleanse themselves before entering. At least, that’s the best guess: nothing concrete is known about the ruins of Ritigala. This was a secluded mountain sanctuary for monks who wanted to escape the everyday world, and their lives remain cloaked in mystery. There are no ruins that could have been used as shelters, for example, so did they sleep in caves? None of the usual Buddhist icons are found, no temples, Buddha images or Bodhi trees. What were these monks doing?

The ruins that we saw were fascinating, made even more intriguing by their secretness of their purpose. Our path led through three large “double-platform” pavilions. These structures were aligned exactly east-west, with one empty platform, and the other filled with columns. What might these have been used for? Meditation? Sermons? “Sacrifices“, Jürgen whispered into my ear.

Toward the top of the official route, we spotted another, smaller path cutting through the jungle. I checked my whip, adjusted my fedora, gave Jürgen the nickname “Short Round”, and we set off together on another adventure. Pushing through the woods, we passed innumerable ruins: baths, rock faces with indecipherable notches cut into them, chairs, and other remains we couldn’t identify. I sat down to rest in one of the stone chairs and, suddenly, it swiveled to the left, revealing a cache of gems hidden underneath. Fortune and glory, kid.

Dotted Stone

“Watch out, Indy!” cried Short Round. I ducked, and a lichen-covered scythe brushed over my head, perilously close. “Thanks, little buddy”. The forest darkened around us and, from it, we began to hear the low, ominous tones of a unholy chant. After stashing as many jewels as we could, me in my satchel, Shorty in his ball cap, we hurried down the path. Behind us, the mummified corpses of Buddhist monks had risen from the ground, and were in slow pursuit…

Okay, okay, sorry about that. But these were my thoughts as we explored the forest path. We continued along it for a long time, almost convinced that we should turn around, but we kept discovering more and more ruins, and it was too exciting. Soon enough, we emerged at a giant stone structure atop the hill that might have been a fort. From the top of it, we had an amazing view of the valley, and on the other side we found a flight of steps leading back to the main path.

We had an amazing time at Ritigala. If you’re in the mood for an exciting, atmospheric experience, you almost couldn’t do better. Don’t forget your whip.

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March 18, 2012 at 6:41 am Comments (2)

Creeped Out at Isurumuniya Temple

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We had just arrived at the Isurumuniya Temple at the southern end of Anuradhapura’s Sacred City, and were scoping out the grounds. The temple is set in a large rock near the Tissa Wewa lake, and just to the left of the main shrine was a small cave. “Hey, check this out!” I shouted to Jürgen, immediately regretting the volume of my voice. The cave was filled with thousands of bats who came swooping out above me. Jürgen might have been impressed, if he hadn’t been busy with his own terror: a six-foot long serpent had slithered across his path. Welcome to Isurumuniya.

Isurumuniya-Temple

After recovering from our fright, we explored the rest of the temple in peace. The shrine is beautiful, in a spacious cave carved out of the rock. Above the Buddha’s head are what look like bat nests. (Do bats have nests? I don’t think so. In that case, I don’t want to know what those were). We were visiting during the evening, and the temple’s setting was made even more gorgeous by the low light. Stairs lead above the shrine to the top of the rock, and we enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the Tissa.

The temple complex includes a small museum where, along with other relics from Anuradhapura’s golden years, a famous carving called The Lovers is kept. It was about to close, though, and we didn’t get a picture (but there’s one here!)

The region around the temple is full of worthwhile sights, as well. Just to the north, you can find the Goldfish Park. This lovely little area holds the remains of the royal baths, which take their water from the Tissa. We were completely alone when we visited, even though these were among the most impressive ruins we saw during our time in Anuradhapura.

South of Isurumuniya are the remains of the Vessigiriya Monastery. We hadn’t been expecting much, but this was another incredibly cool area. A field of mammoth rocks, into which caves and engravings had been cut. As we climbed around, we were in impish spirits, laughing wickedly about some truly disgusting and profane things. We thought we were all alone, but while loudly discussing CENSORED, we turned a corner and came upon a Buddhist Monk who had been using the monastery’s solitude for meditation. He lifted an eye at us, and smiled. So, either he didn’t understand what we were saying to each other, or that was one dirty monk!

If you have extra time in Anuradhapura, don’t pass up the amazing southern zone, which is almost completely ignored by tourists. It’s one of the city’s best areas.

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March 16, 2012 at 11:30 am Comments (6)

A Day at the Abhayagiri Monastery

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Of the three monasteries which define the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, our favorite was the Abhayagiri, towards the north. We spent hours roaming the sacred grounds, talking to the people who worship there, and getting lost among remnants of the distant past.

Abhayagiri-Dagoba

In the first century BC, a Sinhalese King by the name of Vattagamini Abhaya had been forced to flee and abandon his capital during a Tamil invasion. During his retreat, he overheard the gleeful mocking of a Hindu priest named Giri. “The great black lion is fleeing!” Fourteen years later, the king returned with a mighty army and crushed the occupation. In celebration, he established a monastery, and named it after himself (Abhaya) and the priest who had stoked his ire (Giri).

We started our exploration of the zone at an immense, scaffold-covered stupa. Major refurbishment was going on here and, around back, we found a long line of women balanced on dangerous-looking slats of wood, passing buckets of cement to the top of the stupa. They asked me to join in, and the woman I had replaced clapped and laughed at her luck. I felt bad eventually leaving, since I was twice her size and half her age… the buckets were heavy enough for me, and must have been awful for her. These people working for free, restoring the stupa out of a sense of good, Buddhist civic duty.

For nearly a kilometer in every direction from the stupa, the ruins of Abhayagiri are scattered about. You can’t walk six feet without kicking an ancient stone or stumbling upon another half-decayed statue. We wandered aimlessly, finding a litany of treasures. A large Buddha statue, sitting serenely under a Bo Tree. A huge pond cut out of stone, known as the Elephant Pool. Not far away was an odd cave temple and, further to the east, the Twin Baths, where monks would cleanse themselves for rituals.

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Following signs, we made our way to a couple of amazingly intact moonstones. These semi-circular pieces of carved rock are found at the entrances to temples, and depict five levels of existence. The outermost layer is a ring of fire, representing the pain and agony of life everlasting. Next is a parade of animals: elephant, horse, lion and bull, representing birth, old age, illness and death (in that order). Next, a circle of creeper vine, which symbolizes craving. The following circle shows swans, who represent purity and wisdom. Underneath them, another smaller layer of creeper vines, which demonstrate the lessening of human craving. The final layer is of lotus petals turned towards a seed cup in the center, symbolizing the attainment of nirvana.

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March 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm Comments (5)

Horton Plains and World’s End

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Twenty miles south of Nuwara Elyia is the Horton Plains National Park, which is most well-known for its amazing viewpoint called World’s End. The relatively cool temperatures of the park, steady precipitation, high altitude, and the convergence of three rivers create a rare and fragile ecosystem in which a unique biosystem flourishes. Some of the birds found in Horton Plains are only found here.

Das Ende Der Welt

Clouds and haze are a constant presence at Horton Plains, and the only window of opportunity for a clear view at World’s End is in the early morning. So we climbed into a van leaving Nuwara Eliya at 5:30am. This was our first encounter with Sri Lanka’s national park system, and we were shocked at the fees levied on foreign visitors. Between the transport, the entrance, a “vehicle fee”, a ticket for our driver, taxes, and an undefined “service charge”, our excursion cost around $50 apiece. Perhaps at a later date, we’ll get into the shameless chicanery of Sri Lanka’s tourism efforts, but for now suffice to say that we started our adventure at Horton Plains in sour spirits.

The optimal hour for arriving at Horton Plains is no secret and, upon leaving the van, we found ourselves in an long line of hikers. Luckily, the loop walk through the park is long and we could eventually space ourselves out from others. Besides, the nature is strange and beautiful, and we soon forgot about the human presence. While walking, we saw a jungle fowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka, and herds of sambar deer grazing on the plains — one of these confident, hulking beasts would approach our van window on the way out.

Sri Lanka Deer

Baker’s Falls was the first stop during our three-hour walk around Horton Plains. Fed by the Belihul Oya river, this wide waterfall drops about 20 meters. A bit further up the path, we arrived at the World’s End, one of the most famous sights in all Sri Lanka. The highlands come to an abrupt end here, as though God suddenly ran out of “mountain”. The land plummets straight down for nearly a kilometer, and standing on the cliff looking down on the land below, I felt like I was in an airplane. Amazing.

Small World’s End, another twenty-minutes up the path, might have a smaller vertical drop but boasts the lovelier view (and actually, neither could compare to the view of Mini World’s End at Knuckles).

World's End Sri Lanka

The rest of the track, through cloud forest, was beautiful if unmemorable, and we were done with Horton Plains at around 10am. It’s a big park, and there are other trails to be explored, but that would have required more coordination with our driver (read: “$$”) and we couldn’t justify spending another cent. Overall, it was a cool day trip, but not worth the price. Regardless of how filthy rich you are, I can’t imagine a viewpoint which is worth $50 to peer over.

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Here’s one scheme to look out for, which might be specific to Nuwara Eliya. Our van fit six people, and we had found another couple to split the journey with us. We would have saved on transport, and various charges at the park. But, outrageously, our driver demanded twice the amount for four people as for two. Later, a guy would tell us that at his hotel, three separate vans came to pick up three separate groups of two tourists. It’s all a swindle, coordinated to line the pockets of as many locals as possible, and the hotels are in on it too. Unfortunately, there’s very little you can do, except play along or refuse to go.
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March 5, 2012 at 10:55 am Comments (3)

The Archaeological, National, and Elephant Museums of Kandy

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Just behind the Temple of the Tooth are a couple museums which might be worth a visit, depending on the degree to which looking at piles of old stuff turns your crank. The Archaeological Museum, hosted in the former King’s Palace, and the adjacent National Museum are stuffed to the gills with artifacts and treasures from days long gone by.

Kandy Royal Palace

We had just left the Vishnu Devale, which sits across the Temple of the Tooth’s moat. A hundred yards away, an old man was frantically waving at us. Curious and a little apprehensive, we approached him. With every step closer, the guy’s excitement level increased … at 50 yards, he started hopping up and down. At 25, he grinned and began directing us as though he were on a runway, holding glowing sticks. And when we were 10 yards away, I swear he started convulsing. As soon as we were within striking distance, he grabbed our hands and dragged us into the Archaeological Museum.

This museum is hosted in the former palace of the Kandyan Kings. Most of the palace has been destroyed, though the front door and some supporting structures remain intact. The museum displays artifacts found in and around the city, in a dusty and poorly-presented collection. If not for our guide, we wouldn’t have understood anything we were looking at — and even with him, it wasn’t all that interesting. Pots. Moonstones. Other, larger pots. Most of a statue. But, the museum was free (apart from a small tip) and we enjoyed the opportunity to step inside the former royal palace.

Sri Lanka Antigues

The nearby National Museum is far more compelling, though it costs 500 rupees to enter. Here, we found Kandyan-era weapons, like spears and bows, masks and ceremonial costumes, and a lot of information about the lives of the native people. There were ancient, but still legible, ola leaf manuscripts, as well as a copy of the 1858 Kandyan Treaty which ceded power to the Brits.

We should also mention the nearby Raja Tusker Museum, found inside the Temple of the Tooth complex. This is almost certainly the only museum I’ll ever visit which is dedicated to a single elephant. Raja Tusker was beloved by Sri Lankans and his death in 1988 sparked a period of national mourning. This bizarre museum is nothing more than a room decorated with photographs and, in the center, Raja Tusker’s enormous, taxidermied corpse.

None of these museums is essential during a trip to Kandy, but all are worth a peek if you have a few extra hours, or a deep interest in the history of the city.

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February 29, 2012 at 6:29 am Comments (0)

The Four Devales of Kandy

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According to popular belief, Kandy is protected by four gods, each with its own temple in the city center. These devales are special temples dedicated to a specific god, besides Buddha. Vishnu, Kataragama, Pattini and Natha. On one busy afternoon, we visited all of them. Yeah, we got that temple fever.

Vishnu Devale
Vishnu Temple Kandy

Vishnu is one of the supreme gods of Hinduism, surpassed in importance only by Brahma and perhaps Shiva. So what’s he doing in a Buddhist temple? Turns out that Sri Lankan Buddhism borrows frequently from Hinduism, because of the country’s closely-intertwined history with India. According to local lore, Vishnu is the god whom Buddha charged with guardianship of Sri Lanka. Probably not exactly what Hindus believe.

Vishnu’s devale in Kandy is just to the north of the Temple of the Tooth. Its most striking features are a large dancing pavilion (or digge) and a long set of stone steps which lead to the main shrine. Given its proximity to the Temple of the Tooth, this was a surprisingly serene and quiet place. The few worshipers present were sitting in the digge, quietly reading prayer books. We liked it.

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Kataragama Devale
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Kataragama is another god worshiped by both religions, and his temple in Kandy is definitely more Hindu than Buddhist in appearance. He’s one of the more popular deities in Sri Lanka, for the rather shallow reason that he grants wishes.

Hey, I’ve got a wish for you, Kataragama. I wish you’d force your little acolytes to stop hounding me for money! From the moment we stepped inside this devale, we were beset by schemers, offering to lead us on tours (for cash), asking to have their photos taken (for cash), and trying to tie wristbands on us (for cash). While I was checking out the temple’s Bo Tree, it magically spoke to me, asking me where I was from! I shouldn’t have been surprised when a sneaking orange-robed monk popped out from behind the tree with a beatific smile on his face. I lost all enthusiasm, knowing what was coming. “You like make donation?” Sigh.

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Pattini Devale

One of the most popular temples in Kandy is dedicated to the Indian goddess Pattini. A normal girl of humble origins, she was made a goddess after showing unwavering fealty to her no-good, cheating husband. When he was falsely accused of robbery, she protested his execution by tearing off her own breast and burning a city down with her pure, fiery rage. Today, she’s visited by pregnant women and those hoping to ward off disease.

Her devale in Kandy is found in the Temple of the Tooth, and is almost always crowded. We happened to visit during a ceremony and, maneuvering around a rooster, stepped inside. A priest at the front of the shrine was shaking a golden bracelet, while on the side, another guy was chanting like a drunk auctioneer. The place was packed full, and it was a cool experience.

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Natha Devale
Oldest Temple in Kandy

Natha is the only purely Buddhist god of the four protectors of Kandy, and his temple is the oldest structure in the city, dating from sometime in the 14th century. Sri Lanka’s Natha corresponds to Avalokitesvara, who is an enlightened being that encompasses all the compassion in the world. Sounds like a nice fella, this Natha.

The Natha temple is one of the most important in Kandy, only eclipsed by the Temple of the Tooth. Because of the god’s importance, new Kings of Kandy were obligated to appear here to claim a name, before ascending to the throne. The main shrine is evidently ancient, and beautiful from the outside, though its interior is a bit of a let-down.

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February 22, 2012 at 12:42 pm Comments (2)

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Fort Frederick and Swami Rock A mighty promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, Swami Rock divides Trincomalee's Back Bay from the Dutch Bay. It's an impressive natural landmark and has always played an important role in the city's affairs. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Swami Rock was home to the world-famous Temple of the Thousand Pillars. Currently, it's occupied by the massive Fort Frederick.
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