East Timor

Dili – East Timor

While my bike was being shipped to East Timor from Darwin I returned home to the UK for a few weeks to attend my Brother’s Stag Do and Wedding. It was the first time I’d been home for one year and it was good to catch up with everyone again. However, after a couple of weeks I was itching to get back on the bike to start the SE Asia Leg.

I arrived in East Timor’s capital city Dili early 22 Aug after leaving London Heathrow on 19 Aug. I had chosen a cheap flight and so was rewarded, of course, with a nightmare 3 day journey via Sri Lanka, Singapore and Darwin.

When I finally arrived and checked into my hotel, although I hadn’t really slept a great deal, I went straight down to my shipping agents’ office, TOLL Marine (up near the airport) to start what I thought would be the long process of retrieving the Tiger. They immediately packed me off to Dili Port where 5 minutes later a customs official had stamped my carnet (easy as pie!), and back I went to TOLL Marine. By now it was just past 12:00 which meant the whole of Dili had shut down for lunch and I had a long 2 hour wait before I eventually got my bike released. It felt great to be riding her back to the hotel, clean and legal, and I thought that called for a major celebration.


My Tiger – escaped from East Timor customs!

With Task 1 complete, my next job was to get an Indonesian Visa to allow me to cross the border into West Timor. Normally I would be able to get a visa on arrival when flying into Indonesia, but because I was crossing overland from East Timor I had to apply for one in advance, which I had been told would take 3 days. When I eventually found the Indonesian Embassy late that afternoon the lady there told me they were shut and to come back at 09:00 tomorrow with a pile of completed forms. This left me time to relax a bit and watch the sunset over Dili Port just outside my hotel.


Dili Beach – right outside my hotel, Hotel Dili


Sunset over Port Dili

Hotel Dili is a reasonably priced, decent hotel in the centre of Dili run by cheerful Australian/Italian Gino, who also rides a Harley and also runs the travelling biker’s website ‘toowheelsadventures’.  He gave me lots of helpful tips about riding in East Timor, which mostly consisted of ‘watch out for the terrible roads & potholes bigger than buses’ and ‘watch out for the crazy drivers, cows and buffalo’.  I’d have expected nothing less!

Before I went back to the Indonesian Embassy I had to get some passport photos taken. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem as I have a pile of passport photos already prepared, but Indonesia is the only country I’ve heard of that insist on a red background. Anyway, it would have to wait until the morning because all the shops were shut, and it was time for a beer at the ‘Hotel California’.


Happy Hour at the Hotel California

The photo shop didn’t open until 09:00 the next morning and by the time I’d got my tasteful red background photos and returned to the embassy the queue was a mile long; in fact it wasn’t even a queue – just a mass of people pushing and shoving to try and get to the tiny counter at the front with one hard-faced woman sat behind it. I stayed for a while before I realised I was too late and it was a waste of time, and so rode off to check out some diving places for tomorrow, planning to return to the Embassy first thing on Monday. Unfortunately the next few days were too windy to get out to the best sites (Atauro Island) so I used the weekend to sight see around Dili.


East Timor flags outside Parliament


Old reminders of colonial rule under the Portuguese

A worthy visit is the Dili ‘Resistance Museum’ where I learned how the world effectively stood silent while Indonesia invaded East Timor in an attempt to make it her 27th province once East Timor had won independence from Portuguese in 1974. For the next 24 years about one third of East Timor’s population were killed (approx 200,000) as men, women and children were abused, tortured, raped and executed by their murderous illegal occupiers. East Timorese resistance fighters were hopelessly outnumbered but bravely fought on using guerrilla tactics and eventually won their freedom in 1999. For those of you interested, I’ve written an eye-opening account of this part of their history at the bottom of this post (for those not interested, please skip the paragraphs highlighted in italics).

Out and About Dili

If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Dili, a short drive east will deliver you to beautiful sandy beaches, quiet beach restaurants and crystal clear waters.  I was beginning to see what a beautiful, unspoilt country this was.


Gorgeous sandy beaches & crystal clear waters just east of Dili


Quiet beach lunch in the shade


I was beginning to see what a beautiful, unspoilt country this was

Continue east and you will come to a 27m tall statue of Christ looking over the city. Cristo Rei of Dili (Christ the King of Dili) was a ‘present’ to the people of East Timor from Indonesian President Suharto in 1996, which is laughable considering the atrocities he had and was still committing against them during his illegal occupation. Some 500 steps lead you from the car park at sea level to the statue. Views of the island from the top are magnificent and well worth the climb.


Some of the 500 steps leading to the Cristo Rei


Beautiful views from the top of the Cristo Rei


Cristo Rei – a 27m statue ‘gift’ from Indonesia

History of East Timor’s Resistance against Indonesia

Effectively abandoned by the Portuguese after the 1974 revolution, East Timor’s decolonisation process was tough, but political infighting eventually settled and independence was declared in Nov 1975. Afraid Independence would lead to the creation of a communist state in the far east, the US (under Ford & Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) and Australia gave their ‘silent approval’ for Indonesia to launch a full scale invasion a few weeks later in Dec 1975, which is strange considering East Timor is one of only two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Asia, and most Timorese led a good, Christian life.

Throughout the proceeding invasion the world stood by as Indonesia subsequently slaughtered thousands of men, women and children, raping and executing as they went, lining hundreds up on Dili jetty and shooting them. Australian reporter, Roger East, was among a group of fifty men, women, and children that were lined up on a cliff outside Dili and shot, their bodies falling into the sea.

A sign of things to come should have awakened the world 2 months previously when five Australian reporters (the Balibo Five) covering East Timor’s plight were among hundreds executed by Indonesian forces during their pre-invasion incursions.

Despite continued fierce resistance, East Timor troops were massively outnumbered and fled to the mountains where they began guerrilla combat operations.

Immediately after the invasion the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that “strongly deplored” Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, and demanded that Jakarta withdraw troops “without delay”. Unfortunately this resolution was not enforced and the world stood by for the next 24 years whilst over 200,000 East Timorese were killed (a third of the population) in their attempted genocide by Indonesia. I cannot imagine how incredibly brave the East Timor resistance fighters were over the next 24 years, fighting a hopeless battle with a murderous enemy with the blinds closed from the rest of the world.

Despite the UN resolution there remained little resistance from the international community to Indonesia’s invasion, and astoundingly several western governments supplied Indonesia with superior modern weapons to counter ‘the insurgents’, including 13 aircraft on ‘US Aid’ which were used to pinpoint resistance fighter’s hideouts, and for other indiscriminate bombing. Later, testifying before the US Congress, the Deputy Legal Advisor of the US State Department, George Aldrich, said the Indonesians “were armed roughly 90 percent with our equipment…”

This is an interesting read:


It wasn’t until 1998 when the fall of Indonesian President Suharto and a shift in Australian policy led the way for an UN-sponsored referendum in 1999 in which the overwhelming approval for independence eventually came to fruition. Attempts to try the Indonesian President, Suharto, for genocide failed because of his poor health (even though he managed to linger on for another 9 years) and because of lack of support within Indonesia.

Impossibly brave resistance leader Xanana Gusmão became the first president of a newly independent East Timor. Xanana was interestingly named by his mixed Portuguese-Timorese parents after the American rock and roll band Sha Na Na, married an Australian reporter covering his story, and is presently Prime Minister.

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Dili to Comm – East Timor

Monday morning 08:00 I was at the Indonesian Embassy, one hour before they opened, to try and apply for my Indonesian Visa.  I thought one hour early would be enough to be at or near the front of the queue, but already there were 18 people lined up outside the locked gates.  I was concerned it would turn into a ‘free for all’ bundle when the gates opened at 09:00, but was happily surprised when people queued (almost) fairly being kept in line by a security guard.  By 10:30 my application was handed in and I was told to return Wednesday afternoon to collect my visa.  Not bad for a mornings work!  Fingers crossed for Wednesday…

This left me 2 days to explore the east of the island and I thought I’d try and make it over to Jaco Island, right off the eastern coast; anywhere between an 8 to 14 hour ride.  One thing I have noticed over here is that estimates for time and distance vary greatly depending on who you ask.  For example, a 50km journey that should take approx 1 hour (due to the bad & twisty roads) can range anywhere between 50 to 200km and take anything from 1 to 4 hours.  I suppose when travelling by slow bus or truck it does seem a lot longer and takes forever.

I’d heard Jaco Island was the most beautiful place in East Timor (or Timor Leste, as they like to be known) with pristine beaches, crystal clear waters and great snorkelling.  However, I’d also heard the road there was really bad, poorly sign posted (if any) and lacking in accommodation.  Sounds like a challenge!

I set off as soon as I’d collected my luggage from Hotel Dili and 4 hours later I was having lunch half-way between Dili and Jaco in Baucau, East Timor’s second biggest city with only 16,000 inhabitants.


Leaving Dili heading east to Jaco Island


Statue ‘Cristo Rei’ on the headland, east of Dili


The road east of Dili hugs the coast, twisting up and down mountains as it goes

East Timor itself only has around 1 million people, which is not many for a country of its size (around ¾ the size of Wales).  However, I’m sure it won’t take long for this to change as most of the people I saw were under 18.  The children always seemed to be walking to or from school, and I began to wonder if they ever spent any time in school.  Then I found out that there were so many children and not enough schools (90% of schools were destroyed by the Indonesian occupying force between 1975-1999) that 2 shifts are taught every day, effectively doubling the number of students schools can teach.  Great idea, although I wouldn’t like to be one of their teachers.

The further east I rode the less traffic I saw, which suited me just fine; it was nice to escape from the relative chaos of Dili.


The further east I went, the less traffic there was, and the views got better

I’d received many warnings reference the terrible driving by the locals but so far I have found them to be very considerate.  I think they are so used to driving alongside thousands of scooters that the vast majority drive slowly and carefully and always give way to them, unlike many drivers in the ‘western world’ I have driven through.  In fact the worst drivers here by far are the western NGO drivers in their brand new Toyota Land Cruisers careering too fast around blind corners, overshooting their lane and almost running me off the road.

By the way, East Timorese (and Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand) also drive on the left, which I find much more sensible (being a Brit!).  This is due to the colonial rule and influence of Portugal, Holland and the UK (Portugal and Holland used to also drive on the left).  Did you know that countries that drive on the left have fewer accidents than those that drive on the right?  Well, OK – only because they have fewer cars! (The world split is approx 60/40, in case you’re curious like I was).

With not much to write home about Baucau, I pressed on east and despite some rocky roads and going the wrong way a couple of times, I eventually found my way out of town and back onto the coast road heading towards Jaco.


East Timor’s Pacific Highway

Throughout my travels so far I have made extensive use of my Garmin ‘Zumo 550’ Sat Nav, and I would go so far as to say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever bought.  However, I have come to rely on it so much that my back-up navigational aids are usually abysmally inadequate; such as I have discovered in East Timor.  Unfortunately the Garmin ‘SE Asia’ maps which I bought and downloaded before I arrived do not cover Timor, Flores, Sumbawa or Lombok, and the lack of other decent road maps on the internet or on the island means I have been trying to ask for a lot of directions in my best Portuguese or Tetum (which is nonexistent).

Once outside Baucau the roads became hit and miss, but I liked them because hardly anyone else was using them.  The road followed the coast east, twisting and turning up and down mountains, through paddy fields, sand flats and forest.


Rolling coastal mountains

Two hours later it was starting to get late and I was seeing fewer and fewer signs of life.  I started to relate to those early adventurers, not knowing what they’d find as they pressed on in search of whatever it was they were looking for.  I imagined how early sailors felt as they sailed into unknown waters, thinking at any minute they would drop off the edge of the world.  And here I was, riding into the unknown, but mainly due to my lack of planning rather than any unventured path; or was I about to fall off the edge of East Timor?

I was just thinking at least it was warm and at worst I could sleep on the beach, when out of the blue I came across a fantastic beach resort with rooms for $20 per night called Comm Beach Resort.  I couldn’t help thinking it seemed a little out of place, in the middle of nowhere, but with a small sigh of relief I checked in quickly in case it was a mirage, or about to disappear into the mist with Brigadoon.


Comm Beach Resort – lovely place in the middle of nowhere! (luckily for me)

Comm Beach Resort is situated beautifully on the beach and built for around 70 guests, although I was the only guest there.  It felt a little strange being in the middle of nowhere in a semi-modern resort with no-one else around.


I was the only one in the whole resort!

I walked down the beach to explore the rest of Comm, which didn’t take long as there were only a handful of houses ending at a small Jetty where a couple of fishing boats were moored.


Comm is only a small local village with probably more pigs and goats than people, with whom I shared the beach


Comm Beach Resort – view right


Comm Beach Resort – view left

Back at the resort I sat at the beach bar and drank a beer as the sun went down, watching local fisherman cast their nets and pull in bucket loads of fish.  They looked so good I decided to have one for dinner, and as it happens it was the best fish I’d ever had (seared swordfish).


Nothing beats a relaxing beer by the ocean at sunset, watching the fishermen bring in my dinner!

I was so happy with this lucky find I decided to book in for 2 nights, which would allow me to leave all my luggage there safely and go looking for Jaco Island with an empty, lighter bike in case the road really was as bad as I’d heard.  I’d been told the last 8km from Tutuala to Jaco was a steep decline in terrible condition and advised to leave my bike at the top and walk down.  We’ll see…

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Comm to Jaco Island – East Timor

In the morning I woke early at lovely Comm Beach Resort, East Timor, and prepared for my adventure to the far east of the island to Jaco Island, renowned for its beautiful beach and great snorkelling.

Before I set off I rode to the end of the road east of Comm which the Resort Manager, Yono (nice guy from Indonesia) told me ended at a lovely beach. As the forest closed in around me there was a time when I thought I’d taken the wrong path…


As the forest started closing in on me, and the ‘road’ became narrower, something told me I’d gone the wrong way…

After fighting through the undergrowth for a bit, I eventually found the beach Yono was talking about – a gorgeous, deserted beach as far as you could ‘ride’ on the north-east coast.


After fighting through the undergrowth for a bit, I eventually found the beach Yono was talking about

Back-tracking through the undergrowth to Comm I carried on southeast towards Tutuala, a village close to Jaco.  Along the way the roads were quiet and the scenery became more breathtaking.


The road back to Comm


Nice in the shade of the trees out of the sun


Everywhere I looked the scenery became better and better as I approached Jaco Island


It’s a pain to keep changing tyre pressures, but when I hit the tarmac again it’s worth the time to reinflate the tyres to reduce wear, reduce the risk of punctures and improve handling

Within an hour I was there and faced the final 8km steep decent I’d been warned about, which led down courtesy of a very rocky path just wide enough for one vehicle. No-one else seemed to be going down there either (not that there were many people around).

In possibly in a foolish move, I let the air back down in the tyres (I’ve found 25 psi works well with the Heidenaus on dirt), started her up and went for it. Almost immediately I was standing on the back brake using the rear wheel to check my speed (ABS off) as I slid, banged and bumped down the track, hoping I wouldn’t go over the edge and no-one else was coming up the other way.


This photo doesn’t do it justice, but the last 8km to Jaco Island were VERY steep and rocky!

8km later I made it (sweating) to Valu Beach below which looked out over the crystal clear waters around Jaco Island. There was another group of tourists there who had come down in a 4WD jeep (more sensible than a heavy motorbike), but apart from them, nobody except 3 local fishermen.


Valu Beach, at the bottom of the steep, rocky 8km road from Tutuala

I asked one of the fishermen if he could take me across to the island, and he said he could for the sum of 6 USD return. “Hmm, deal!” I said as I handed over the money and grabbed my snorkelling gear.


My taxi to Jaco Island

It only took 15 minutes or so to reach the island, and I asked the fisherman to pick me up an hour later. Then he left and I was alone on a pristine, golden sandy island, surrounded by a stunning coral reef.


Prestine Jaco Island

I have done quite a lot of diving in my time, but the snorkelling around Jaco was better than much of the diving I’ve done. Although not very big, the coral bommies on the sheltered side of the island were immaculate and teeming with reef fish at depths of only 1-2m (3-6 foot). Unfortunately I didn’t have my underwater camera case with me, and even if I did, I’d lost that camera (reminder – buy a new underwater case for my new camera!) I’d also forgotten the underwater case for my GoPro video camera, but at least the experience will live on in my memory…


Enjoying my own personal deserted island

Unfortunately, when it came to riding back up the steep 8km rocky road my clutch burnt out half way up. I knew it was the clutch straight away because it disappeared in a cloud of clutch plate smoke as I tried to gain traction on a particularly steep and gravelly section. After that, the gears just wouldn’t catch and I was left in a somewhat precarious predicament, balancing mid-slope.

It was about 16:00 when the clutch went, and unable to move ahead I managed to rolled her backwards onto a level section of track 50m astern and waited for the cavalry to arrive (to do what, I’m not sure).

An hour later I was still there and no-one had passed, so I decided to hike back down to the bottom, Valu Beach, to see if I could get help there in any form. I guess I needed either someone with a large 4WD pickup, or several strong people to help me push her to the top.

Earlier that day as I was riding back uphill, just before I’d broken down, as luck would have it (or not), down rolled two 4WD trucks with ‘Timor Adventures’ advertised on the side. I had stopped (on a steep incline) and spoken briefly to the Australian tour leader Shirley for a while, so thought it would be a good start to seek her out again and see if she could help me in any way.

One thing I learnt from this little incident is never leave all your money back at the hotel when you disappear on what should be a short, straight-forward day-outing.

I found Shirley & the tour group accommodated in nice palm cabins at Valu Beach, sipping beer and cocktails at sunset. Oh how I wished I could have swapped places with them! Shirley very kindly got to work phoning around for me looking for a lift, but ultimately the only option that presented itself was hiring 2 local men from Tutuala to meet me at 08:00 in the morning and give me a hand pushing the bike 4km back uphill for 50 USD.

I spent the last 20 dollars I had (luckily I had at least some money left) on a cabin at the ‘budget’ camp down the road and turned in early, feeling a little better about the situation.


My ‘buget camp resort’ at Valu Beach, complete with free bed bugs

I was rudely awoken around 2am by something biting me. In fact there were several things biting me, and I jumped out of bed to investigate. I knew it was bed bugs straight away, and looking carefully I found them crawling on the sheets, and removed one from my arm. Could the past 24hrs get any better?


Don’t sleep here, unless you like being woken up by man-eating bed bugs at 2am

I ran straight into the sea to wash them off and drown the little buggers, and spent the rest of the night/morning sitting outside waiting for the sun to rise. It was a pleasant night with thousands of stars visible, and warm at least. I couldn’t wait until sunrise so I could get cracking recovering my bike.


Waiting for sunrise and the long job of recovering my injured motorbike

When the sun finally woke up I climbed 4km back up the hill to my bike and waited for the 2 locals to show. Shirley had very kindly lent me 50 USD to pay them, and I promised I’d return it to her in Dili, when (if) I eventually made it back there.

After a while the 2 locals, Gonzales and his son Ricky, arrived. On seeing how big and heavy my bike was they immediately entered a long period of gestation to see what other options there were. As they own a motorcycle repair garage nearby, they set about trying to repair it. They may have been good at repairing Indonesian motorcycles, but when Ricky started trying to take off the left hand engine crankcase cover, I started to suspect he hadn’t worked on many new Triumph Tigers. Granted, there was a language barrier to content with, but Ricky could speak half decent English and I soon worked out he was actually looking for the front chain sprocket. Close calamity averted, I showed him how to get to it, and he looked at it and said it was the clutch. Good – I’m glad we settled that one.

Anyone who knows anything about motorcycle clutches will know you can adjust them. I am certainly not a proficient motorcycle mechanic (unfortunately), but I can Google problems, sometimes find the answer, and sometimes do a half decent job of fixing it (such as my clogged Idle Stepper Motor, although my fix didn’t completely work!). My major weakness here was I didn’t have internet, and although I had already adjusted the clutch half-heartedly (with no effect), I assumed that once a clutch had burnt out it was gone, and a new one was needed.

After an hour or so of further deliberation and chewing the cud, Gonzales and Ricky finally faced the reality that the only way of getting my bike 4km to the top of the hill was to push her. I could tell they were not keen. I, on the other hand, was very keen to recover my bike, and managed to convince them it would be easy and we’d be done in no time at all.

Three hours later we were still pushing.


Pushing a 215kg motorbike up a very steep, rocky mountain is VERY thirsty work! Unfortunately we had no water…

I’ve done some pretty tough things in the past, but pushing a 215 kg (470 lbs) motorbike 4km up a very steep and rocky hill ranks as one of the most difficult. The heat of the midday sun did not help, and I was literally swimming in sweat. I’d finished the last of my water 2 hours ago, and was beginning to feel somewhat dehydrated.

I’ve got to hand it to Gonzales and Ricky though – they are both very strong and didn’t give up at any point, although we had regular rest (or collapse) breaks. Midway Ricky probably saved me from collapsing of heatstroke by climbing a tree and getting us all coconuts to drink; that was certainly the best coconut water I’ve ever guzzled!


Ricky saving me from heatstroke by feeding me coconuts

When we finally made the top Gonzales spent some of the 50 USD I’d paid them on bottles of water and biscuits for me, as I’d also missed breakfast. Such nice people – I’m forever indebted to them. Ricky told me it was the first time they’d pushed a motorbike up that hill at all, and it was the last! All the local motorbikes are much smaller and lighter (usually 150cc max) and small enough to lift into the back of a jeep and drive up the hill, which is a lot easier!

The next logistical problem was getting my bike back to Comm Beach Resort, where all my luggage was, and then getting her to Dili where I thought I’d have to order a new clutch. The first part of this problem was solved when Ricky found me an old truck and driver willing to take me to Comm for 70 USD.

It took 5 of us to lift her into the back and then we set off, with me & 2 others trying to hold onto her as we bounced and bumped over the rocky, uneven roads. With no tie-downs I’m not sure we would have passed any health & safety risk assessments, but I was well happy, as it worked! That’s one thing I love about ‘developing countries’ – whatever it takes, they get it done with whatever they have.


The East Timor Motorcycle Recovery Service – don’t leave home without it!


A miracle, but made it safely back to Comm Beach Resort in one piece

Now here comes the fairytale bit of the story where I almost end up kissing an Indonesian man. Back at Comm Beach Resort, the manager Yono is keen to look at my bike as he thinks he can fix it. Armed with spanner, pliers and a lit cigarette hanging precariously from his lips, he swings off the clutch adjustments both ends as far as they can go.

Amazingly (to me anyway) it worked, and my bike was resurrected from the grave! However, I did feel pretty stupid and scolded myself for not fully adjusting it myself earlier. It meant I could hopefully ride my bike to Dili and see how she went, but I had no more room for adjustments and so a new clutch was still needed ASAP.

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Comm back to Dili

The good news is I made it all the way back to Dili on my injured clutch; not only that, but it didn’t slip once.  I’ve sourced a couple of options for a new one, including a couple of kind offers from friends to post me one, but think I’m going to see if this one can last until the next (40,000km) service I plan to get done in Thailand.  One of the disadvantages of riding a Triumph around the World is their lack of authorised service centres around the world, although they are expanding, and Thailand is the closest.  Conveniently three of Triumph’s factories are in Chonburi (south of Bangkok), the other 2 being in Hinckley, UK.

On the way back to Dili I saw the same great views and grazing water buffalo as on the way, but didn’t get lost in Baucau this time.


Test riding the Tiger before the trip back to Dili


Comm Beach


Lots of Water Buffalo around here


And up close…


Road back to Dili

I made it back in good time and was at the Indonesian Embassy at 3pm to see if my Indonesian Visa was ready.  Ten minutes later I was extra happy because I had the visa in my hand and a motorbike that worked again – Indonesia here I come!!

Before I left I met Shirley’s partner Dave at ‘Timor Adventures’ and paid back the 50 USD Shirley had lent me to recover my bike at Jaco.  If you’re looking to tour East Timor either on a bike or in a car, they are certainly worth looking at.  Dave was also kind enough to buy me lunch with the money I’d given back to him – cheers Dave!

I spent the rest of the day resting (and catching up on this blog).  They say bad things happen in threes, and I just remembered the 3rd thing that went wrong in Jaco (apart from my clutch burning up and sleeping with bed bugs):  my mosquito spray leaked in my bag.  If there’s one thing you don’t want to leak in your bag, it’s a bottle of 100% DEET, as it melts all plastics it comes into contact with.  Hopefully that’s my run of bad luck complete for the foreseeable future (or forever would be better).

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