Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

Mother’s Day,YESI Student Weds, Yelapans Return Home, Trees Embraced

Mother’s Day May 10, 2012

I happened to be reading after waking in the middle of the night; Wade Davis’s “Light at the Edge of the World” about vanishing cultures.  I was in Sayulita escaping the cuetes , bottle rocket “bombs”  that are a big part of most Mexican major celebrations. They’re an especially big part of every annual Guadalupe Festival, Yelapa no exception, occuring every year from May 4th to 12th. They blast above the village at 5 a.m. calling all to go to church and sing Las Mañanitas, the morning serenade, to the Virgin Guadalupe. She appeared to Juan Diego, a humble man crossing the snowy path near Tepeyac, Mexico state, in 1531, and in exchange for a chapel built at the site of their meeting, she would be the patroness of all Mexicans forever.

Just about every woman I talked to went every morning at the tolling of the bell to church. Then most reported they went back to sleep.  The men were not so forthcoming about their devotion.  That’s “ungodly” early, even for a saint. At about 7 p.m. the cuetes are launched again, echoing from the mountainsides rising steeply above the village.  This goes on for nine sleep-less days,  a fevered crescendo of frightening noise in ever decreasing intervals with each day.

The priest in 2001 called them a “spiritual shot into the air”, and told me that I should respect the traditions of Mexico. I complained in defense of the terrified pets, specifically mine, fleeing to the hills.  I viewed these closer to an act of terrorism, rather than God’s doing. But he was right in that traditions hold community together. But there are some ugly traditions holding the world together, we could do without!  Our  “melting” pots or cultural mosaics have lost much of their roots; I’m here enjoying theirs. But what  I can not respect, understand, withstand or harmonize with, I flee from.

So this particular night I was in Sayulita, in blissful silence.  It was 1:30 am. I had gone to bed very early, but had woken up and was reading. Their was music from what appeared to be a very loud school band. It stopped suddenly. A few more pages, again I heard a much louder  band on the march. It belted out a very charged version of Las Mañanitas, the birthday song. “Whose birthday?” I thought, “It must be some young people from a school band playing for a friend. Who would wake anyone up at this hour?”  Then it was quiet.

Another page or two, and the band moved to the west side of my hill, unmistakably playing Las Mañanitas. I reviewed the date. May 10th   the early morning of Mother’s Day , Las Mañanitas is also day-long serenade for moms. In San Sebastian three years earlier,  the school band played from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. when the last member, the tuba player, staggered onto the pick-up truck.  That school band was very new; such novices that they were moved their practice hall from the plaza to the village entrance, far from the public ear. School Bands plays for Mom

Tuba player in San Sebastian plays for Mother’s Day



This Sayulita band was very good. Besides  Las Mañanitas, they played other tunes. The tuba played with gusto and experience, the clarinetist played pretty tremolos and the drummer had undoubtedly mastered  reggae at some point in his life.

As I lay there after the “aha” moment, the question arose. “Who would awaken their mother at this hour of the night, and think they would be doing her a favor?” I laughed at the idea that mothers would be happy listening to this band.  This must be like a son’s coming of age attempt to attract mom’s attention. Or engineers on university Initiation Day  where look for the thrill of being caught and praised for their ingenuity in parking a Volkswagen Beetle at the top of the highest bell tower, or such awe-inspiring feats.

Another ten minutes, the band started up again even closer. I was amused. Perhaps the mothers were too.  It would be hard to imagine Moms getting the kids ready in the  morning after a sleepless night.   It seemed like a carnival with tricksters running around the crowd, men wearing women’s clothing leading the way. I had just been reading about the Peruvian  “mujonamiento”, the annual running of the community boundaries, led by the strongest fleetest youth, dressed in women’s wear, carrying a white banner, leading the pack of all the village’s men who ran behind “her” to mark the boundaries.  But no woman would do this to another woman. To those keen on sleep, it was an obnoxious prank, although a beautiful sentiment. Mexico is all about tolerance; moms more than anyone!

I had the urge to get dressed and see who these boys were. It occurred to me, these  young boys were also sacrificing a night’s sleep too. How loving the tradition now appeared.  I closed the computer, I clicked the “sleep” button with a little laugh.

Dress over nightgown, I followed the music down the other side of my hill.  A tabby cat ran friskily past them and under a truck, as if it too enjoyed the revelry of this nocturnal jaunt.  The band finished their tune as I approached and piled onto the pick ups of three trucks.  There was a young girl in her teens with a big smile at the house they had just left.  She told me, as she waved them, and one renegade girl, off, that they played often at their own houses or those of their families. I commented that it seemed hard to believe that mothers would want to be woken up at this hour.  “Yes, they do this every year.” She said, adding, “Si, tenemos unas costumbres raritas”  Yes, we have some customs that are a little bit odd!  When I told Amaranta, at Café El Sofa in Vallarta, she said, “Oh, yah, in Guadalajara when I was young one band would stop and another would start up and we’d be kept up all night” with bands vying to honor mom. Una costumbre muy rarita!

Well not having been a mother, it’s hard to understand just how joyous it might be to be awoken on such a morning.  At three a.m. I went to bed with a greater understanding of just how unusual a woman without children would seem in a culture so completely devoted to motherhood. Perhaps learning tolerance is the part of motherhood training that I missed and that makes me so intolerant of the cuetes!

Back in Puerto Vallarta, there were special Mother’s Day meals at various restaurants, festooned with innumerable balloons and streamers. Every place in town was brimming with family. Vallarta’s sea wall, or malecon, which has been doubled in size in its newest redesign, was bulging until past midnight. There’s no end of friendliness and celebration in Mexico, and especially on Mother’s Day.

Would I ever relax and enjoy cuetes in Mexico, given that there is always some celebration and accompanying noise in Mexico? Is there cultural merit that binds the community that would be lost with phasing out or diminishing the cuetes? I don’t have these answers yet. But I do know that sleep in Yelapa would be so much more difficult during the Guadalupe Festival , especially on Mother’s Day, if someone started a school band!

Pups and Kitties for Adoption! May 19th

Yelapa has a wild cat problem. It is also cat-saturated where homes are cat-friendly. I feed four extras, from whom I receive reluctant acknowledgement that I’m at all their patron. You know cats. This same goes for dogs, but they’re more conspicuous and are well-fed beach dogs if they’re lucky, and learn quickly to attach themselves to tourists and even sleep on their door stoops. If you’re ever able, they can be rescued and the process is this easy.

I inherited a mangy starving kitty from a good soul who hadn’t the money to feed it or care for it properly. For ten days, “Feisty” fit in very unassumingly and just hung out by my side playing or in his wooden crate while I worked,  just pure white fun and love. He became so healthy so fast, with a few injections from the vet, Pamela, some multi-vitamin supplements, good food and care, and a small cash injection by student, and new friend, Katie.

I put out a call to Yelapa Friends on Face Book to see if a temporary home could be found as I was headed out of town for a week. Erin, a new part-time resident living upriver near El Manguito Restaurant, was happy to care for him. Soon she was hooked and I was advised that she might be able to convince her husband, Patrick, who arrived for a weekend trip from Chicago, that Feisty/Dude/?  could go home with them. Being a very cool kitten, it only took one day and he was booked on board Patrick’s flight for an additional $125.  Patrick’s only condition – that he be able to name him.  Martin at Vetmore Animal Clinic in Vallarta came to his clinic on Sunday, his only day off, charged only forty dollars for multiple vaccinations, a vet inspection and health certificate, and  Cuate (for Cuahtémoc) Blanco,named after a famous Mexican soccer player and his white coat, didn’t whisper even a sigh of discontent as he was carried in a hand bag around PV. He’s now the newest Chicano in Chicago.

cats for adoption from Yelapa Mexico para ti

Cuate Blanco cat from Yelapa makes his way “home” to Chicago, loved by Erin and Patrick

Kitten Cuate Blanco adopted in Yelapa

Newest Chicano Kitten Cuate Blanco is adopted and moved to Chicago



















Mexicans are getting off their Butts – Vallartans on Bikes!

The news headlines starting a few years back stated an astonishing “news bite” if not fact.  Mexicans have an obesity problem much larger than the United States.  Canadians haven’t quite tipped the scales as severely as we’re burning off reserves in the winter cold, trapping animals, building log cabins, hunting moose, playing hockey and making baseball bats (a somewhat true but skewed perception of Canadians in an American survey I recall).  The tacos after midnight are taking their toll on the Mexicans, especially those who now have office jobs and especially kids sitting at computers and televisions. This is not so evident in Yelapa where kids walk a couple of kilometers from the village to school, and don’t spend much time reading or other sedentary activities. Most don’t have a computer in the house.

Another difference in this epidemic, is that in places of extreme poverty, a bag of potato chips or other junk food (chatarra) is cheaper than real food and filling due to high fat content.  A national health campaign has kicked in to stem this epidemic and to wrestle with the prevalent diabetes. This last year I noticed exercise machines on the boulevards in the community of Ixtapa, a large town of twenty six thousand, north of the airport. I glanced at the runner’s track at the Puerto Vallarta stadium the other evening, now with new exercise machines beside the track.  There were impressive numbers of Mexicans jogging, stretching, utilizing the new exercise machines, and running the track.  I headed there this early morning in late May, before I could change my mind, and was determined to do my best to keep up. It was a marvelous experience. Everyone was active, friendly and courteous. No dogs. No charge.

I worked on the machines I had the patience for, did some yoga stretches and poses (to the thumbs-up approval of some gentleman watching) and then headed to the track. I haven’t run for a couple of years. Not seriously anyway. The dirt trails of Yelapa with rocks are a bit tricky for two strained knees. I initially easily paced off one lap, keeping a young woman just ahead as my “buddy”.  Soon, I was winded, and began walking fast and watching all the regulars shoot past at their regular rate.

So much is happening all at once, it seems, to aid Mexicans in their quest for fitness. This rapid dissemination of information was apparent to me twenty six years ago, when I worked in Mexico City in environmental planning. The Director of the office, Mauricio had adapted Canada’s federal regulations in environmental impact assessment and patterned a Mexican equivalent. Their program didn’t take years to phase in as I’d expect such an innovation to do in Canada.  New ideas here can spread like wildfire, especially if there’s political will and a bit of capital. When Yelapa got electricity, everyone seemed to be an electrician quickly. Some people in town got computers. Suddenly there were “experts” at the few cyber cafes. Undaunted by a challenge, Mexicans quickly overcome them.

When I left my favorite internet coffee shop, Café Canela in Colonia Versailles, the other night at 11 p.m.,  I was surprised by a thick stream of bicyclists who had taken over the main interior two lanes northbound following a police patrol car.  As I tried to photograph them, one young man stopped his bike to tell me what was going on. Every Wednesday they ride from the Marina to the Malecon (seawall) and back, I would estimate about 15 or more kms. I jumped in my car (alas not my bike) and headed to the Marina to wait for them, vicariously enjoy their extraordinary experience,  and cheer them on.

One early bird, Carlos, a very fit young man, I guessed in his early twenties, stood by his bike and told me the story. For four months now, every Wednesday a group has left at 9 p.m. and returned by about 11:30 pm to the marina. This includes little kids, moms and pops, young and old. It’s not a race, but a ride. Every week the two main traffic lanes of the main “highway” are blocked exclusively for the event.  Everyone makes it. This week there were two hundred and eighty bicyclists! There were old bikes, cruisers with upright handlebars, sissy bikes (the small wheeled, long handlebar ones). A number of riders had impressive mountain bikes with all the best riding gear, all the bells and whistles included.

Bike Ride from Marina to Malecon Wednesday Nights Vallarta

After Dark Bike Ride Every Wednesday Marina – Malecon Return

Bicyclists ride Marina to malecon every Wednesday in Puerto Vallarta

It was fun being the greeter, celebrating their individual victories and getting their stories.  They didn’t linger long due to fatigue, exacerbated by the late hour. Most had trucks to put bikes in and they left, none that I noticed, by bike! As I stood by my car to leave, still watching, I spied a familiar face in the darkness learning over the handlebars of an old bike. “Luis?” I asked. “Mauro”, he said. As long as I’ve known Luis and Mauro, the two sons of Luis and Angélica of El Manguito Restaurant in Yelapa, I’ve always confused their names. What a surprise to have a representative cyclist from a non-roaded rocky, hilly village! He’s been doing the ride regularly since the beginning. It made me proud. Wait till I tell his dad and his grandma, my friend, Hortensia!

You do not see any bicycles on the roads on a normal day; not in Puerto Vallarta and only occasionally bike racers on Sundays on the road to Las Palmas. Why? Carlos told me it’s too hot during the day. Well, the “winter” months of December through to February are not really hot. However, not many work facilities would have showers. It’s too dangerous? That would be my guess. There’s very little consciousness about bicyclists in this busy city of fast traffic and warrior bus drivers.

Back in 1987, I used to bicycle in downtown Vancouver to work to the Sea Bus terminal daily. It was dangerous to be there; the single rare rider was an easy victim. Even bike couriers tended to cluster,  in the downtown. That has fortunately changed and bicyclists are common, and mass bike rallies common in the downtown of Vancouver. It’s one of the friendliest bicycling cities I know of in Canada. Hopefully this change will occur with numbers and training of riders and drivers in Vallarta.

If you’re in PV, join them from Plaza Marina, where Poseidon signals the entrance of a shopping complex and guards a breaching humpback whale. Or come out to the track and exercise machines at El Estadio(The Stadium).

Here’s a novel story of a bicycle touring band: A band of friends in Northern California playing a song “Ride to Believe” when someone shouted, “What does that mean, ‘ride to Belize?’ The drummer yelled, “Ride to Belize! Let’s ride our bikes on tour all the way through Mexico to Belize!” and they did. The fifteen Ginger Ninjas rode by bicycle for seven months and it became a spiritual story of “spectacular success and heartbreak” An Argentinian film director, Sergio Morkin, found the band playing in Baja California and followed them around for three days, loved what he saw, and made a feature movie.  In Spanish: Los Ginger Ninjas, Rodando México (“rodar” translates here as roaming), English: The Ginger Ninjas Ride Mexico.

It premiered March 3-5th at El Festival Internacional de Cine in Guadalajara as the feature documentary to sold out audiences. They’re putting together a list of festivals where it will play soon, hopefully with commercial release soon thereafter. Here’s the link with bit of the movie:

Everyone Is Coming Home

The stats cited in Geo-Mexico: the Geography and Dynamics of Modern Mexico, (Rhoda and Burton, 2010) show that over $25 billion was sent from Mexicans in the United States to their families in Mexico in 2008. In terms of foreign exchange earnings, this was behind automobile and oil exports, but well ahead of tourism.  Rumour has it, this flow started to reverse in 2010 to help out beleaguered family members in Mexico. At present, many Yelapans in the U.S. are investing in new construction here in Yelapa. With a tricky world economy, there’s no better time to invest in your future home.

Despite the slow-down, many in the construction business are being buoyed by money sent primarily by family members building new houses, many as family homes, some as rentals.  Many are beautiful, two storey plus homes. One couple is building ocean-front townhouses right on the water behind a beautiful cobble-cemented wall. Some have already returned to live here full-time, and are investing more in building other new rental houses.  Some are building now and planning a return in two or three years. Many have been away for at least five years, some ten or more.  The former jungle parkland I lived amidst is changing into a subdivision of lots for family houses. My landlord’s Angel and Irma’s second oldest son, Luis, has a beautiful new home.  Their nephew, Moi, is building a large house. Another niece is planning a house in front of mine.  My little jungle palapa is becoming very out of place on this hill. Further upriver, Hortensia and Jose’s grandson, Orlando, just had an engineer approve the second storey of his beautifully designed home. I hear he’s even putting in a pool; a rare sight in Yelapa. I recall when he left, he explained they wanted to earn enough to build a home.

At this Mariner’s Day party on June 1st, we saw many family members come back for the best party of the year. Many were looking at their homes in progress, as they pay for it brick by brick. It will be some homecoming when many of them can return to Yelapa to live!

Yelapa Remembers its Mariners and Parties in Their Honour!

The 31st of May happens to be my landlord’s birthday. I talked to him earlier in the day. He didn’t mention it was his 69th birthday. He forgot! It was attended by half the village. The other half of the village were having a pre-party for the wedding planned for Saturday night.

At midnight the partiers showed no sign of slowing down. They were dancing beautifully to the band playing norteño music (accordions).  DJ David, Angel’s nephew, played very danceable music. All his primos and primas, (cousins) were dancing like they were all competing on Dancing with the Stars. The girls with long legs with impossibly high heels, and short shorts. Everyone had a cold beer in hand on that very muggy evening. As I made my way up the stairs that seemed very steep that night, I passed the little girls, children of the cousins, who were playing together showing no signs of fatigue. It was a typical Mexican family party and the children train at a young age! While laying in bed in my palapa on the edge of the jungle, I heard the  call “oh, oooh…” long drawn out. Again “oh, oooooohh….” Two syllables, rising intonation. It’s the warning that cattle, in this case, bulls are being driven through town.

June 1st  is the celebration in honor of the mariners, Dia de los Marineros. After mass at 8 a.m., boats of people then head out to the head of the bay, where Maestro Pedro says some words of tribute to those captains who brave the seas daily, and remembrance of those who’ve sacrificed their lives in fishing, transport and cargo on these sometimes very rough waters.

yelapa tributes mariners in special service in boats in yelapa Bay

Maestro Pablo leads tribute to Mariners in Yelapa at head of Yelapa Bay

Then bouquets of flowers are ceremoniously dropped in the sea. On completion of this tribute, the boats all speed in a loop around the bay, followed by the “Egg Wars”. Usually boat loads of the youngest mariners compete in pirate fights with flats of eggs. Pelting friends and rivals with eggs beats computer games hands down! Others gain pleasure in smashing eggs on friends’ heads on the beach. The festivities on the beach carry-on day long; for many the highlight is the greased pole climb. Last year’s conclusion: pig lard is greasier than engine grease, as no one succeeded in climbing the pole! Few boats leave town until later in the day, and none of the regular boats from Boca bother coming in. The village is left to celebrate.  Drinks and barbecue all free donated by the village!

Yelapa's mariner's Day a great annual event

Greasing the pole for celebration in honour of the mariners, past and present of Yelapa!

The bulls which were herded through the village were for the after-party, the charreada or rodeo; primarily riding of bulls. Everyone dresses in best cowboy boots and goes to the night rodeo with a live band.

To take advantage of the large family crowds already assembled, Saturday night was also the wedding of Hortencia and Roberto’s daughter Yure (Judy). Since so many family members come home for Mariner’s Day, other parties tend to cluster around this June 1st Feast Day.

The question in my mind as I listened to the “oh, ooooohh… ”  as they herded bulls through town on Thursday around midnight,  “Will the drinkers, especially tourists, who are out wandering the streets, be quick enough to move when the bulls come through town?”

Yelapa tributes flowers in honor of deceased mariners June 1

The will to live – Embracing Trees

I was very saddened on returning from Canada in October that all but a couple of the trees on the adjacent lot had been cut, cleared from the land, … but not from my memory.  Some guayaba (guava in the U.S.) trees which grew from this lot, hanging over my sidewalk, were tightly knit within the weave of various lianas(vines), including passion fruit vines that blanketed branches of the taller trees. All provided shade for the rest of the undergrowth, all nurtured shade-loving plants. One tree was chopped at its source, where a house foundation now lay, and its dead trunk and limbs were left in the mat of growing vines. Another was almost entirely separated from its base but was still connected by a thin strip of bark and bit of cortex; left to live or die. It chose life. After months this same tree miraculously has sprouted new leaves, and better yet is blooming, and producing fruit.

Still thriviing Guayaba Tree hangs on by a bit of bark

Guayaba tree in Yelapa over YESI path grows and blooms despite near fatal injury.

The tragedy is that this had to happen at all. I see continually in Mexico, trees that are left in place and all architectural or civic structures such as roads deviate around them. Numerous trees are worked into the wall of Brazil Steak House in downtown Vallarta, and grow through various stories of the building amidst the diners. Traffic detours around a tree in the middle of Calle Libertad in Sayulita, and the town cemetery has a tree through its peripheral wall. The main highway #200 just south of Rincon de Guayabitos passes through an arch of green limbs in a perfect hemisphere. With some consideration, trees can not only be built into the scenario but also be the central feature. It’s hard to forget a tree that has that much will to live!

Guayaba still blooms over path to YESI Spanish school

Guayaba tree still flowers after being cut to make way for houses

Parota trees in Mexico extend their limbs, like wings of a mothering chicken.

Not Just Another Yelapa Wedding – La Boda de Ashley y Eve

Well it finally happened. One of my students came for six months, at nineteen, very sweet and seemingly innocent.  I was impressed by her vision and her drive. It’s not often someone young knows what they want.  I don’t think she knew her reasons for coming. Studying was not easy for her; she’d always had some learning challenges she admitted. But she was determined and came to class, and improved when the class was moved to the afternoon.  Until one day she didn’t show up, and no word was sent. She’d been hiking and got sick. I didn’t ask with whom she hiked.

A month or so later my associate teacher, Verónica offered Ashley congratulations on her new boyfriend, Eve. My jaw dropped. Shows I need to come down from my hill more often.  A few months later, as planned, sorely missing her friends, she left for home in Portland. Unintentionally she had to leave her much-loved dog, Dragon, behind with Eve (no room on the plane; space hadn’t been confirmed beforehand). She emailed asking if anyone might be coming north to Portland and could carry a dog with them. I checked around. Her decision was to leave the dog with Eve and come back in four months for her birthday for a week.

Ashley and Dragon in yelapa after Spanish classes

She did come back in August. One week turned into a life sentence. Her father wrote to ask what I thought of her staying in Mexico, and that there were possible plans to marry. And who was this man? Well, I showed support for further language study “She’ll be bilingual, and very marketable in both countries!” I offered.  “His mom is really nice.” And “Seems like a very nice guy. Takes great care of the dog. He’s very religious.” I had somehow gleaned that they shared a spiritual connection, too. Eve made her a crucifix of macramé waxed thread. It was her favorite jewelry.

Was she too young? Was she naïve? Dad’s concerns continued. I could think of 50% of the population of the American people who had picked poorly. She was brave enough to live life and not fear the consequences.   She’d fallen in love instantly for this lean wiry man who impressed her with how hard he could work (and I would guess his very good looks too!). When partying one weekend early in their relationship, both had been drinking, he asked, “Will you marry me?” She said , “Yes”. He said,” I”ll ask you again when I’m not drunk.” She said, “It will be the same answer.” A woman who knows her mind, drunk or sober!

Well, I heard of the wedding plans in early December, set for  June 23, 2012. Then at the end of January, I commented on what looked like a FedEx package. “Oh, it’s the lab tests. I’m pregnant.” She smiled her most brilliant smile. Nothing like upping the ante, on a life-changing decision!

A recent Facebook entry of her at 16 weeks pregnant, received a comment about the beach backdrop, “living in paradise!” friend sighed. Her reply, “Ya, but I’m trapped here!”  Reality strikes. I know Ashley well enough to know that she’ll continue to figure it out, fearlessly. There’ll no doubt be ups and downs, after the wedding and when baby arrives in late October. (Oddly Yelapa is full of Scorpios, the most common sign of the Zodiac here.)  Life is a steep learning curve, especially for those who step up to the plate at every opportunity. She and Eve have both a strong bond in their faith in God. She goes to church regularly with him, although the language must still be a challenge, and to spiritual retreats. She’s taking it all in stride.

Who’d have thought that someone would come to study and stay for life?

Ashley weds Eve in Yelapa and is growing her own little "cria"

Ashley grows her own little piña!

For those of you who studied with her from mid November 2011 to late April 2012 and want to extend your congratulations, or are just happy to know that someone has found their “Príncipe Azul” (White Knight except theirs is Blue!), please check her wedding site, and send her a note on her Contact page.

Summertime and the Living is Easy

It’s slow always in summer; this year slower than usual. Meanwhile the sunsets are magic with a big orange or red sun hanging over the ocean and then being seemingly squashed into the other half of the earth. The weather is hot and humid, the ocean crystal clear, salty and warm.  A few students are making their way south, here to Yelapa and soon some Austrians are coming to Sayulita to study with me before heading to Guadalajara for an intensive Business Spanish course.

I’ve started a new website for summer studies in Sayulita as well as as Yelapa. I hope this will help fill in the business roster for a busy summer season or come to a verdant green paradise of Yelapa, or come for a guided Spanish tour of neighboring villages

Should you need a mellow week or two in the tropics, when the rates are the lowest for flights, accommodation and for Spanish classes, everyone will be at your service and guarantee the best times. It’s really Mexico at its best – lush, green, relaxed locals, beautiful sunsets, birds and turtles nesting, the sounds of the jungle … it is paradise!

sunsets over Yelapa Bay

summer sunsets over Yelapa Bay

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