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Mexico 2004

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Mexico 2004








January 11, 2004

I hear Spanish, but I don’t understand a single word. This is trouble…I’m only in the Dallas airport getting a piece of pizza, what am I going to do when we actually get to Mexico?

We passed trip’s first test back home in Chicago. Surprisingly, our bags were within the weight limit. As I step on to the plane in Dallas, I watch my freakishly large duffel bag roll down the conveyor. Another good sign. All I want to do is get through the Mexico City airport and on to Puebla. As usual for me before any big trip I’ve got another headache. Stress!

The plane arcs towards the runway and through the haze we can begin to see Mexico City. Navigating through the terminal and past the drivers offering us rides, we make it quickly to the bus stop. Nervously using my Spanglish, I ask the man behind the hazy window, “Dos boletos para Puebla, por favor?” 125 pesos and an hour later we’re riding in comfort on the Estrella Roja express bus, watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind dubbed in Spanish while a woman strolls the aisles feeding us unidentifiable pastries and warm soda. Our first hour and Randy has taken a picture of everything already. Mexico City is enormous. The sights, the smells, the people. Green VW beetle taxis tear through the streets. Next stop, Puebla.

January 12, 2004

Randy and I excitedly wake up at 5 am to the sounds of motorcycles in the streets and went to the rooftop garden to catch the sunrise. La Malinche to the North, Popo and Izta to the West, and Pico de Orizaba to the East. Foreign travel is new to both us and I can tell Mexico is going to be quite an experience. Poverty and people everywhere, but you wouldn’t know from the inside of Hotel Colonial, a former monastery built in the 15th century.

After breakfast of huevos rancheros (with black bean salsa), hot chocolate milk (scalded milk, actually) and toasts (yes, with an “s”) we hopped in a taxi for a thrill ride to the huge Puebla bus station, CAPU. Traffic laws mean nothing. Speed limits are merely suggestions as we’re easily three times over the posted numbers. People had better stay on the sidewalk if they know what’s good for them.

CAPU is an enormous place the size of many airports, with literally hundreds of busses. Without question, the bus is the preferred method of transportation in Mexico. Efficient, clean, comfortable, so far. I’m quite proud of myself when I speak with the ticket agents in Spanish and figure out the schedules for the remainder of the trip. Our first destination is a small town named Apizaco on the route to La Malinche.

On the way to Apizaco, the bus stops every few miles to let others on and off. A man with a guitar gets on and sings an out-of-key tune then roams the aisles looking for coins. A woman selling bread gets on as he exits at the next roadside stop. I spot a man standing by the side of the expressway in his underwear, washing his hair in a mud puddle. The large windows give us a completely cloud free view of Popo and Izta.

As impressed as I am with the mountains, I marvel at the incredible array of life passing the bus windows. I’ve seen more police in the 18 hours since we’ve landed than I would see in years at home. There are two dogs for every person, but no one seems to own them. I just saw a van with IL plates. Clothing hangs on all of the buildings and I realize what a sheltered life we lead. How do all these roadside fruit, lemonade and tortilla stands survive? Despite the dirt and poverty, it’s fascinating and I love it.

We arrive in Apizaco at 10 am. As we get our gear, all the taxis, or Colectivos as they are called here, immediately disappear as the locals snatch them up. The station attendant gives us cryptic instructions to walk 8 blocks into town to find the right bus. Weaving our way through packed sidewalks and literally hundreds, if not thousands of six foot wide shops selling clothing, tortillas, candy, medicine, and household appliances, we finally reach what we think is the right spot. A shopkeeper eyes our bags and decides we’re headed for LaMalinche. Una hora, once y media. One hour, 1:30. We wait.

We arrive at the camp and find that a group of 11 students and teachers from Prescott College in Arizona have just come down from the summit as we’ve arrived. Perfect timing…We’ll ask them to watch our gear as we climb. We head for La Malinche, 4600 feet above our camp at 10,000 at 1:15. It’s a straight forward, no navigation hike up a well worn path. The forest looks like any other pine forest anywhere in the US. The one difference is the trash; piles of it, candy wrappers, empty water bottles, tissues, and 3 liter coke bottles seem to be the garbage of choice.

I’m feeling great today. No headaches and I’m climbing strong. We break tree line at about 12,500 and are faced with the crux of the climb, an 800 feet scree slope to the ridge above. Each step up takes up ½ step back and fills our shoes with volcanic ash.

Reaching the ridge we are greeted with views of Izta and Popo with its perfect, symmetrical cone rising above the clouds. We’re both feeling the altitude as we approach 14,000. We ascend the final boulder field to gain the 14,640 summit. It is a magnificent view of all the volcanoes. Peeking over the ridge next to us is astounding, eyeing the drop several thousand feet into this long-extinct volcano’s ancient caldera. It’s the highest point for either Randy or I to date and its Randy’s first summit ever. At this height we are nearly 200 feet above any part in the lower 48 and this is only the warm up.

We set a quick pace on the way up reaching the top in less than four hours. I’ll set an even faster one on the way down reaching the bottom in an hour and a half.

January 13, 2004

Our campsite at Centro Vacacional de La Malintzin is a nice quiet place if you don’t mind dogs. Not the well trained sort that you see in the park catching frizbees, but strays numbering a dozen or more. Seven of them followed the other group to the summit, apparently leading the way like their own personal guides. These dogs barked throughout the night. Sometimes at I’d guess they were barking at something meaningful, but mostly at their own echoes. Between the dogs, my general inability to find a comfortable spot and the fact that I’ve had to pee all night but don’t want to go out in the cold, I spend the night tossing and turning and barely sleeping, never for more than a few minutes at a time.

The group of students decides to catch the 9am Colectivo too and we’re nervous that we won’t fit. The driver, Hermando pulls up in his shiny white VW minibus asks “how many” and upon hearing there’s 13 plus all our gear, he promptly replies “Ay, no problema”

Back in Apizaco we catch the 10:30 bus back to Puebla. We’re treated once again to another American movie dubbed in Spanish. I try to write but the bumping of the bus makes it impossible. I was able to reach Kellie back in Apizaco. I’d like to call more frequently to let her know I’m OK. She said Rachael’s been crying and I feel bad. I just want to talk to her and let her know I’m OK. Our plan is to go to Tlachichuca today and onto Piedra Grante, where I won’t be able to call for two days. I’m hoping we’ll arrive with enough time in Tlachichuca so I can call home again.

Back in Puebla’s CAPU station, we buy our tickets to and spend the next 10 minutes trying to locate the correct gate. After a long and confusing walk, we finally reach the gate. The bus leaves in 30 minutes so we decide to eat something that’s not freeze dried and Church’s chicken is just the right treat.

Our next bus is an “intermedio” bus. Apparently that means “bus that stops whenever somebody wants to get on to sell you crazy looking drinks and pastries.” We arrive safely in Tlachichuca and quickly found Hotel Gerar and load into his rusty, ailing 1970’s Jeep Cherokee to El Refugio at 14,000 feet. I was happy to find a phone on our way out of town so I could call Rachael. Unfortunately she was staying late at school. I’ll call back in 2 days when we return from Pico de Orizaba.

Gerardo speaks almost no English, but he understands my butchering of his language and seems pleased to meet a climber who wants to learn his language. He asks me how to say things in English as I do the same in Spanish. Randy quietly rides in the back, snapping pictures.

We reached El Refugio at 5:30. The crowd is light, with one group of 7 from Montana and a couple from Indiana and New Jersey.

January 14, 2004

Well, I made it through the night without freaking out about mice. In fact, I slept better then at La Malinche. I could hear them in the walls and scurrying around on the floor though.

Randy and I take the first of our acclimatization hikes to 15,200 today. The first thousand feet from the Refugio climbs up a steep and twisted trail. On this first hike, I’m concerned about how prepared we are, both in terms of gear, physical readiness, and hard skills. The other guys in the cabin are extremely experienced and they’re going to move very quickly so we’ll be left to find the route on our own. One guy went to the glacier and is describing it right now and he’s making it sound much more difficult then I expected. He’s talking about class 4 icy scrambles and “a labyrinth”. Compound all this with the fact that we’ll be doing it in the dark. We’ll turn back if this not safe and we don’t feel confident.

Some of this is probably my own self-doubt speaking, but some is also truth. I’m glad that we’re here attempting this mountain because it’s giving me a better idea of my skills and shortcomings. What I’m really concerned about though is Randy. He was really struggling on today’s hike to just over 15,000 ft. Even if we don’t summit, I’d like to at least make a strong try.

January 15, 2004

Midnight arrives quickly on my third nearly sleepless night in a row. Tonight was less about the mice scurrying around by my head and more about nervousness for the climb. Are we ready? What will I do if Randy can’t go on? The others in the hut are not too friendly and don’t seem too willing to let us or me, come along with them. I can’t blame them though. They don’t know us and the last thing they need is to prepare only to have an unknown in the mix.

Randy and I hit the trail at 12:20. It’s a warm evening, probably 50 degrees or so. As we begin, he’s laboring hard behind me. I ask how he’s doing and he gives an unconvincing “ok”. The moment I’ve been expecting occurs just minutes into the climb he asks me to stop and says, “We have a decision to make”. He says he won’t be able to make it to the top with his pack. We talk about redistributing our load for a minute and decide instead that our choice is to either continue and see how far we can go, but give up our chance at Izta, or stop now and save his strength for Izta. I choose to cut our losses on Orizaba, however disappointing it is. Inside, I am hurt and my heart is disappointed. I was really looking forward to the idea of having reached the summit of the 3rd highest peak in North America.

My head says it’s the right decision though. Part of me is scared of this mountain. Fear of the mountain is good because it can kill you. The crosses in memory of climbers who have lost their lives here are a reminder that this is high altitude mountaineering and is not to be taken lightly. Still, my fear pisses me off. I’m a better climber a smarter climber than my fear suggests. Maybe it’s because every account that I read on the internet seems to have anyone who attempts the mountain reach the top. Maybe it’s because I see the two gumbies in the other group, one in particular, who doesn’t know how to self-arrest or even hold an ice axe. I’m no expert, but I have more of a right to make a legitimate summit bid. Maybe it’s the small size of our group and wanting the security of others. Having at least 3 would have allowed Randy to bail out without having the same climb-ending effect on me. I am both disappointed and relieved I’ll just have to come back.

Back in the hut I lay awake as mice crawl over my sleeping bag attempting to steal anything they can grab. Sunrise comes not a moment too soon and there’s finally a reason to get out of my sleeping bag. I step outside and suddenly realize that it’s colder now then it was at midnight. I scan the glacier 2000 feet above us with the binoculars, looking for any sign of climbers. We hear the reports over the radio and learn that the two strongest climbers have failed to reach the summit. Mike, who has climbed all over the world, is soloing the mountain, having started this morning from camp 2 at 15, 600. His chosen route the recommended route took him to a large bergschrund, 50 feet deep and it scared him off the mountain. This was his third attempt on the mountain. It’s that kind of solid judgment that will allow him to come back a 4th time. On his descent he told the other group about the barrier and they quickly re-routed to the right side of the glacier. I still don’t understand why he didn’t go up the right side with them and instead chose to return. He was so close.

By the end of the day, only 4 of the 8 who reached the glacier will summit. Strangely enough, it’s not the group I expected. The stronger, more experienced climbers succumb to altitude sickness and exhaustion while the fat slow goof who doesn’t know his axe from his ass reaches the top. When he returns he says that the only reason he kept going up the glacier was that he was too afraid to go down.

Senor Reyes picks them up at 2pm and drops off two college students from Arizona. Talk about massively unprepared. These two women have no idea what they’re in for. One is fairly experienced having done several volcanoes in the Northwest USA. The other is just along for the ride. She bought a pair of hiking boots in Mexico City just for this trip. So far they’ve gotten snowed off LaMalinche, sick on Izta and now they’re here…alone. They’ll be climbing alone with nobody else on the mountain to give them information or help with the inevitable rescue if they go too high.

I call Kellie and it’s quite a relief to hear her voice. I finally get to talk with Rachael too. My adventuring seems to be wearing on Kellie though, making me more anxious to get home. She’ll never really know how much I appreciate her putting up with my stuff. Few people would be as giving. I wish I could have the entire family join me on a trip like this. It’s an incredible cultural experience.

On our way back to the hotel, we stop at the “minimercado” to buy groceries. We’re tired of freeze dried food, especially after watching the other climbers eat the ton of locally purchased food that they brought to Piedra Grande. We also make a quick stop at an internet café so we can send a few e-mails home. The kids are staring and giggling with each other at the sight of the odd Americans.

January 16, 2004

As the bus gets closer to Puebla, the clouds grow thicker. Izta and Popo are completely obscured. Definitely a bad sign for our planned ascent tomorrow morning. We may need to use that extra day after all. The weather has cooperated so far, but today things may change.

I purchase our tickets for the next bus that will take us to Amecameca in a roundabout sort of way. The bus is headed to Mexico City’s TAPO bus station, but makes stops along the way. The only problem was that I don’t exactly know where our stop, Puente de Chalco, is and they don’t make any announcements on the bus about each stop. On top of that, once we get to Puente de Chalco, I’m not sure where to catch the bus, or which bus to catch to get to Amecameca.

On the bus, I pull out the map of Mexico and find a city named Chalco. I could only guess that the road to Chalco, which crossed the highway, was the right one. (Puente de Chalco means Chalco Bridge, in English). Next, how will I know we’re at that spot since there’s no announcement? The expressway crosses a pass in the mountains at 3215 meters just a few miles before Puente de Chalco, so I watch my altimeter and then jump off at the first road crossing after 3215 m. As the bus shudders to a halt, Randy and I jump up to get off as a man waiting for the next stop blocks our path. I yell to the driver “Puente de Chalco?” as he starts to close the door. He stops in mid-close and we jump to freedom.

The bus roars away in a haze of diesel fuel and we’re left by the side of a Mexican expressway in a pile of empty McDonald cups and newspapers, holding two sixty pound bags of climbing gear. Alone. And I don’t see the other bus stop.

All I know is that it’s not right here. Fifty stairs lead to the top of the overpass as I throw my bag on my shoulder. Across the overpass and down the stairs deposits us on the other side of the expressway. An access road leads us past an abandoned building with a large group of men shouting “taxi.” Sure, that would be a good choice! I ignore them and keep moving ahead.

At the intersection leading to the toll booth, four roads come together. There are no stop signs stop lights, etiquette and traffic laws mean nothing. Cars, taxis, trucks, and motorcycles are racing along, coming from all directions, making random unannounced stops. Feeling like participants in the game Frogger, we sprint for the other side with our bags dragging in tow. We make it, but I’m still not sure where to go.

We head for the toll booth, passing a row of buildings where they’re building furniture by hand. Beautiful dinning and bedroom sets of all different kinds of wood. Some rustic, mostly elegant, classic pieces. We stop for a brief moment to watch a craftsman hand plane his work to perfection.

We reach the toll booth and a man tells us the next bus to Amecameca will arrive in 10 minutes. We pay our 8 pesos and ride the B.O. express to Amecameca. In one of the constant contradictions we run across on this trip, Randy decides to buy a handful of peanuts from one of the vendors also riding the bus. Ten pesos earns him a Dixie cup of Spanish peanuts and 8 pesos gets us all the way to Amecameca.

Arriving in town, we decide that it’s too rainy to try to go up to the mountain and check into the Hotel San Carlos, the only hotel in town. The decision is reinforced as we walk next door to get a permit to climb tomorrow and learn that the roads leading into the Izta-Popo National Park have been closed due to train at the lower elevations and 15cm of snow higher up. They won’t issue any permits today nor will the military allow anyone to pass the checkpoints into the park”. “Come back tomorrow”, they say. We got up at 6am and raced here today to get to town by 1:30, only to find out we have nothing to do. Further yet, I don’t have a good feeling about tomorrow’s weather either. If we can’t get on the mountain tomorrow (day 7) and prepare to summit on day 8 we’ll be done climbing.

There’s a huge market in the city square (Zocalo) where they sell everything from packages of pink plastic hair curlers to shoes and fresh poultry. The poultry is so fresh I they’ve plucked the feathers and cut off their heads this morning. They look just like rubber gag chickens as we watch the man whack off the feet with a cling of his knife.

We wander the market aimlessly, dodging rain falling from the tarps covering each vendors stand. All I can find is crap that nobody needs, and mountains of it, but all I’m searching for is something handmade for Kellie and the girls. Pink porcelain elephants, pistachios, and Latin CD’s are everywhere why can’t I find a blanket made with local textiles or anything of any value.

All the stores in every town seem to have the same junk. It’s like a 300 mile long flea market that never closes. If they’re not selling crap or food (why don’t these people weight 500 lbs.) they’re got a weird specialty. Not one, but several stores in each small town sell only wedding cakes or caskets. It seems that nothing is painted, yet there are paint stores everywhere. Another store is devoted to hair coloring products. Every body is wearing a serape or a colorful blanket over their shoulders, but where are they buying them.

January 17, 2004

We wake on Day 7, our last chance to go up on Izta, to find it’s raining even harder and the clouds are even lower. I try to hang on to hope, but when the permit office opens at 9:30, I realize that all is lost. We hurriedly pack and get out of Amecameca not a moment too soon. Under better conditions I might have enjoyed the town.

I try to call Kellie on the way out of town, but he phones don’t seem to work suddenly. Our bus takes us to the large bus station in Mexico City, TAPO. This is our first visit to the heart of the big city and it’s very foreign to us. After figuring out how to pay for a taxi, we load into a small green and white Isuzu driven by Javier.

When I tell him I wanted to go to the Hotel Lafayette, he starts waving his hands saying “muy malo”. After much discussion over price and safety, he takes us to his recommended hotel. We pull up out front of the Hotel San Madrid to be greeted by a doorman who whisked away our luggage. To my surprise, Javier has delivered us to a very nice place where we pay only $60 per night, including breakfast.

Arriving at our room we immediately check for hot water and the presence of toilet paper (and a seat…yes, we’ve run across places where any one or all three are missing). This morning’s “shower” in Amecameca consisted of washing my hair in freezing water in the sink and wiping the rest of my body down with lemon baby wipes that we found in the Piedra Grande hut.

It’s still early 1:30pm and after trying to change our tickets with the travel agent in the hotel, unsuccessfully, we decide to try to salvage the day with a tour of the lost city of Teotihuacán.

For $25, a maniac driver races us at twice the posted speed limit to tour this ancient area.
During the drive, he eagerly points in every direction and explains the history of the city, past and present. At the pyramids he takes us to an artisan’s cooperative where he undoubtedly receives a kickback for the visitors he steers in their direction. Edwardo, our guide at the cooperative, does an excellent job of explaining the uses for the local cacti.
We learn that three different kinds of alcoholic beverages are made from a cactus and we’re given samples of each. The Pulque isn’t bad, but my first shots of tequila though don’t leave me wanting more.

We watch artists weave blankets (finally!) from thread made from the skin of a cactus and learned about rocks and minerals, like shale and obsidian that are mined locally. It took seven days of searching but I finally found the handmade, locally produced gifts I had been looking for. Bracelets of shale for Rachael and Sara, and a shale and silver picture frame for Kellie, and a blanket in the colors of our family room for all of us.

After a running tour of the ancient Toltec city of Teotihuacán, the second largest pyramids in the world outside of Egypt, our group is herded back into the van for a speedy run back to Mexico City and the Basilica of Guadalupe. An unexpected side trip, the Basilica was built in the 15th century and consists of several churches built over the years. If find myself to be quite interested in the legend of Guadalupe and to watch people’s reverence as they pass through the church. The Catholic faith plays a big role in Mexican society.

The final thrill ride back to our hotel continues the pattern of blown red lights, cutting off other drivers, heading the wrong way on one way streets, and speeding toward crossing pedestrians. As we pass through downtown to unload other passengers, we see a hurdy-gurdy man playing a box on a stick by means of a crank on the side. With him are several minions in uniform collecting money from stopped motorists. Randy thinks the money must go to pay for the music lesions to turn that crank.

January 18, 2004

As the day began, we realize that we’re running low on money, but we still have another night in the hotel and a cab ride to the airport along with the evening’s dinner. I stop at the desk to renew our room when I notice a set of less expensive rates labeled “Uxmal.” I learn that these rooms do not offer air conditioning or breakfast and were smaller than our present location. None of those were important to us and I attempted to make the switch. To my surprise the workers at the desk work with me to negotiate the Uxmal price, half of our current rate, and still stay in the same room.

I’m quite pleased with this arrangement, now at $35 including breakfast, until I receive a call from the manager telling me I need to change rooms. I rush downstairs proof in hand of my prior arrangement, to correct the situation. This turned out to be my first and hopefully only argument while in Mexico.

The woman who assisted me in the morning seemed to have no recollection of our agreement. The manager insists that they must have told me to change rooms. I had offered three times to move to the less expensive Uxmal section, only to be told it was not necessary. My final call of the manager’s bluff came when he insisted that he bellman recalled a different version of the arrangement, an impossibility since the bellman was on a different floor of the building. He finally acquiesced, realizing that I had successfully disproved his argument I fully expected to see an extra 300 peso charge on my bill later for butter in the restaurant, just so they could recover their cost.

I really wanted to go home today instead of drag through Mexico City. We started the day with a visit to a local church, San Hipolito. The past few days has spurred my interest in the influence of the church and I am interested in seeing a service as well as put in my prayers for a quick return to my family.

The church is enormous and the crowd massive. The sign outside indicates that there is a service nearly every hour of the day on Sunday and several each weekday. The building is packed with people sitting and standing wherever they can find room. This is just a regular Sunday and it’s much more crowded than even a Christmas or Easter celebration at home.

Once again, the Mexican people’s devotion to the church is inspiring. Many people hold lit candles, purchased from the ever present vendors outside. Everyone blesses themselves multiple times upon entering, exiting, sitting or passing a stature of a saint. The church is immaculately kept with ornate chandeliers paintings on the wall stretching from floor to the ceiling over 50 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Stained glass adorns the windows and statures framed the gigantic alter area.

Our final full day in Mexico has us heading to the famous National Museum of Anthropology. As we stroll along the avenue of the reformas, we see neatly uniformed police officers stationed by twos along every block. Both impressive in the fact that the city took that stance on crime, and disappointing that it was necessary.

On our way to the museum we see another set of street performers, proving once again that not only will people do anything for money, but that people will pay for almost anything. This trio climbed on each others shoulders and stacked three high walked through the stopped cars. The top layer was a small child dressed in a dirty tiger suit that would wave his arms and spin his tail to gain attention. This went on for a minute until the tower would collapse and they would scatter through the cars. Meanwhile, the mother in the family would spend the time during the show weaving through the cars selling stuffed Winnie the Pooh dolls.

The hotel restaurant becomes the final nail in the coffin for this day. We decide to celebrate the end of a largely successful, although unfinished trip with a steak dinner. In reality we want to find out what $7.50 could buy in a steak. Randy orders the filet mignon, which turned out to be one of his most succulent meals. Mine however is quite possibly the worst pieces of steak I’ve ever attempted to eat. When I enjoy the cauliflower and carrots garnishing the steak even more, then the meat itself, you know it’s bad.

I try to salvage it by ordering some extra sauce from Randy’s filet, only to receive a plate of overcooked bacon. Now I wanted some sauce for the bacon. I think I’ll go home and learn the Spanish word for sauce.

Throughout the trip we’ve had some great food. We did our best to experience the authentic flavor by eating tamales wrapped in a Plantain leaf, purchased from a street vendor in Amecameca. My most memorable meal however, has to be the quesadillas we ate for lunch, also in Amecameca. Cooked over a fire with tortillas made in the market and chicken so fresh it had been walking around someone’s backyard the day before. Cooked just right and filled with cheese, they brought a bit of sunshine to an otherwise cloud-filled day.

January 19, 2004

We’re on the airplane now heading home. Our last hurrah came at the airport when the taxi driver dropped us off. Already reeling from the fact that it cost three times as much to go from the hotel to the airport as it costs to go from the airport to the hotels, 150 pesos vs. 45 pesos, we hop in the cab that the hotel doorman hailed for us. I failed to confirm the hotel’s published price with the driver only to learn upon arrival that he wanted 250 pesos. I proceeded to discuss the hotel’s price and his agreement to abide by that already outrageous amount. He retuned by stating that the hotel’s price is not his and that he sets the amount. I firmly let him know that I was now setting the price, gave him 150 pesos and left for the gate. It wasn’t the way I wanted to end my Mexico experience.

The trip was great. I learned a lot, experienced the culture, and proved to myself that I could organize an international expedition.

Will I be back? The answer is a definite yes. I’m not sure when yet, but I would like to experience the summit of these two high peaks.

Vaya con Dios, Mexico
Hasta la Vista
Gracious por su hospitalidad

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