travelog 23

Schoolday in La Soledad

In the Southern foothills of the Sierra de la Giganta, near the small village of La Soledad (means "solitude") that consists of some school buildings and a few small concrete homes, we made a short stop. We just wanted to ask the inhabitants about the location of the Arroyo San Antonio del Coyote, which is mentioned in our scientific literature as the locality of a Dudleya plant. This simple question degenerated into a big undertaking...

In the group of men we asked, everybody had a different opinion. In one view the place was easily accessible with our truck in another, we would have to go for at least four hours on horseback. Some even thought that they have seen the plant we were looking for. Even in this case, though, the opinions differed a lot. One man had seen it just behind his rancho, and another one had seen it growing in the cliffs high up on the Cerro Mechudo. More and more people gathered around PocoLoco and us during this confusing discussion. Finally Maestro Isidro, a teacher from the local boarding-school, arrived. He was very enthusiastic about our plans and our search for plants. He got wind of his big chance: for about an hour, we should tell his school children all about our "work". We should explain to them the flora of their home state, and especially of the surrounding area. We should prove that scientists don't have to be old men with gray hair, long beards and not much fun in life. The most important thing would be to point out how important the preservation of nature should be to them. Nothing easier than that, you are probably thinking. But we knew that we had to present this lesson in Spanish - a challenge especially with all the botanical technical terms. After hesitating for a while, we finally decided to tell the kids a little bit about our "work". First of all, this would be a good opportunity topractice our Spanish. There was also the unique chance to have a look at the local school system and even win new friends.

It was already Friday afternoon, the last school day of the week was over, and we were willing to wait in the neighborhood until the following Monday. Over the weekend, we climbed around in the surrounding mountains hoping to find the Dudleya in an undiscovered place. On one of these tours we were invited for coffee. Of course, we had to tell the people something about Switzerland. The big question was where in the world is our tiny country located? The father suspected it was in Africa. The mother thought it must be somewhere in or near England. When we explained to them that England is a big island, we made them really confused. The only rumor that had gotten through to this isolated place was the death of the queen of England in France (it took us a while to realize that they were talking about Lady Diana). At last, a look into the schoolbooks of the girls showed them the exact geographical position of Switzerland.

Of course we also prepared our school lesson thoroughly. We spent many hours studying our dictionary. Maestro Isidro was very enthusiastic about our ideas and wanted to know everything about Switzerland, Austria, Europe, and our travels in general. For one year he has lived in La Soledad in a miserable small concrete home that is normally used twice a month as the doctor's office. It's an ugly little home without electricity. In the winter the room is bitterly cold and Isidro sleeps with seven woollen blankets. In the summer he can't stand the heat inside the house, so he spends the night outside in a hammock. These concrete buildings are the latest thing here in Mexico. It's a sign of luxury; only the satellite dish for TV is given a higher status. Other homes have a small solar panel for electricity. However, because the young teacher with his progressive and ecological ideas is locked in dispute with the director of the school, he's not allowed to connect the already existing electric line to his room. The teacher has to do his homework in daylight, he has to prepare his dinner with a flashlight on the little fire outside the house, and it's best for him to be in bed when it gets dark outside. There are a bedstead, a table and four plastic seats in his room. His stock of groceries sits on a wall: canned tuna, cans of corn, mayonnaise, Pan Bimbo (soft bread, America served as a model...) and some cookies. There is a big pile of oranges from a neighboring rancho in a corner. Under a net, safe from the flies, he stores more fruits and vegetables.

Covered in clear plastic on the wall are visual aids for the sexual education of the doctor's patients - a section each on the female and the male genitals, the picture of a coil in the womb, and a dusty condom in its original pack. Isidro told us that the doctor prescribes the coil for women at the expense of the government. He said that they had no understanding of the coil and its effect, but we didn't really believe that. Long discussions with Isidro showed us that he was very happy to have somebody he could talk to about everything under the sun. He seems to be isolated from the rest of the world in this tiny little place. With his revolutionary ideas (at least for the local farmers) he's fighting a losing battle. He had no idea about Switzerland. Earlier a farmer said that in Switzerland drugs are legal, that it is the country with the most freedom, that there are many banks, and that the chocolate is excellent. In a history book we then found some Swiss people, among others Zwingli and Calvin. From Austria he said two names in the same breath: Mozart and Schwarzenegger. The former would probably turn over in his grave if he knew that he was being mentioned in the same sentence with the latter. The latter would be horrified by the pronunciation of his name: "Sworzeneier". Sounds like the German word for "black eggs" (= "huevos negros") as we told Maestro Isidro to everyone's amusement. At night we fried some quesadillas on the open fire. Isidro served us an orange wine that is made by a local farmer. To pay tribute to us, he and a local farmer sang Mexican folk songs. The songs were all about love, yearning and pretty women. At the end of this evening nothing could stop Isidro from singing us a Beatles song ("Yesterday"). While we had no problem recognizing the melody, his English lyrics were absolutely incomprehensible.

The next morning was very quiet. From a farm woman Julia purchased some queso fresco ("fresquecito" - is the local name) for only a few pesos. This is really fresh cheese and much cheaper than in any grocery store.

Around 13:30 pm we were in the schoolyard for the "conference", as Maestro Isidro called it in a high-flown manner. Schoolchildren of all ages were rounded up and some of them had to get more chairs from other rooms. Then Maestro Isidro welcomed the school kids and another teacher. We were welcomed as "big scientists" with a strong applause. We could hardly keep a straight face. Julia gave a short overview of our country of origin, Switzerland. I then explained (in halting Spanish) the kind of plants we were looking for, the meaning of the term "succulence" and how we collect data about these plants with the help of our laptop computer and digital photography.

As a practical example, we took the exact global position of the school with our handheld GPS. Then we shot a picture of the whole school class, and showed the result right away to everybody on the laptop. While I was busy showing all this, Julia discreetly took some pictures in the classroom (A pretty nice picture, which we don't want to withhold from you, shows the enormous interest in our explanations demonstrated by four boys who were loungiing around...). With the help of a diagram on the blackboard, Maestro Isidro then explained the systematic structure of the plant kingdom. It sounded very professional and only we knew that I had copied that diagram out of our scientific books the night before.

Then it was time for questions. There were embarassed faces, whispering and giggling everywhere. There was only one question about our scientific presentation. A young girl asked if we also collect living plants or parts of them? Julia pointed out the fact that Mexican law does not allow people to collect plants or parts of plants such as seeds. She explained that we therefore only "collect" pictures and data about the plants. The we answered the other most "important" questions: how old we are, if we are married, how many kids we have...

This were the kind of questions the young pupils were interested in, not the scientific stuff. At the end they expected some concluding words. This gave us the opportunity to ask them not to spoil their environment with garbage, not to destroy plants with vandalism, and to replace plants that had to be removed so that there would always be a balance in nature. To end our program, we presented the class three Swiss chocolate bars (from our emergency reserves - sniff). The kids had the most fun with this part of the program. Then we got another strong round of applause (probably also because of the chocolate), and we were released.

We promised Maestro Isidro to drop in soon for a Beatles song recital.

February 2000

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen