travelog 46

San Luis Potosi

Under a perfect full moon they silently march through downtown in slow, dragging, rhythmical steps, and in a carefully thought-out formation. A part of them wrappped in clerical robes with masks and conical hoods similar to the Ku-Klux-Klan; the women mostly with black lace veils or fine rebozos (handwoven silk shawls); the children, dressed like mass servers, carry a lantern with them; then, again and again, the penitents with bare feet and simple robes, dragging rattling ankle chains; and finally the groups of sweating and wavering men who, with supreme effort and contorted faces, carry huge wooden platforms on which Christ's Passion is shown in life-size scenes. They are so heavy that they are only carried for a few meters and then put down on stands so that the men can rest a little bit.The music that is played in this procession is monotonous and repeated over and over again. Only drums and trumpets are allowed, and they only play one single very short sequence of notes. From the church tower a clear woman's voice sings monotonous melodies.

As a culmination a huge statue of the Virgin Mary with a crystal tear, the widely known "Mater dolorosa" (Our Lady of Sorrow), on a big platform with hundreds of flickering candles in front of her. She causes the thousands of visitors to rise silently from their chairs, remove their hats, and cross themselves.

We feel taken back into medieval Spain. But it's different, more Mexican!

It's the "Procesión del Silencio" (procession of silence), world-famous, which is celebrated on Good Friday evening every year in San Luis Potosi, one of the old mining towns of the formerly Spanish territories overseas. It's a widely known and famous event to which people come from near and far in Mexico. Street merchants try to take advantage from it, candy-floss pieces fly through the air, groups of people push their way through narrow streets and parks and spacious squares of downtown, restaurants and cafés are full to bursting-point with happily chatting people. It's a little public festival although with a serious background, originating in a deep Catholic belief.

We sit comfortably on the chairs we ordered in advance. For only 30 Pesos (8 DM, 6 Swiss Franks or $4) we were able to reserve chairs along the procession route. Now we devote ourselves to one of our hobbies: people watching! Many of the features here have an Indian element, especially visible in the typical curved nose of the Aztecs and the sloping forehead; well-known from the Mayan stelae from Middle America. There are people from the ranches strolling through town in their Sunday best with other family members. There's the cowboy, with his typical hat, the inevitable belt, and the pointed boots, who shows with his bow-legs and shaky walk that he was born on horse back. There are the young girls, mostly in groups of two or three, their blouses a little bit too short and their clothes a little bit too close-fitting (we're astonished about how many young people here are overweight).

There are the typical Mexican machos, young tanned men, showing their muscles in an undershirt, displaying their chest hair (where the inevitable gold chain with the cross gets entangled), wearing the crotch of their jeans to the knees. Of course there should not be missing the dolled-up woman who totters by with her straw-color dyed hair, shrill, mask-like make-up, Pepsodent smile, painted long claws, in her ultra-tight miniskirt and the barely covering blouse. That leads our neighbour, a lady from the higher society of San Luis Potosi, to the dry remark "oh, sexy lady!". And last but not least the "Damas Potosinas" with their backcombed hair, the elegant Spanish clothes, gold jewelry, and an artificial smile on their faces. One of them bears a remarkable resemblance to Cruella De Ville, the evil witch from the Disney movie "101 Dalmatians".

Anyway, why are we here, you will ask yourself!?

To answer this question we have to go back in time. Back to February 2001, to be precise. At that time we were travelling through the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Durango. One day when we just started to crawl through the undergrowth along the road where we parked PocoLoco to search for our plants, a vehicle with American license plates stops. A couple asks us about a specific plant and if we, by chance, had seen it around here. This accidental meeting was the beginning of a very nice friendship which we have shared since then with Betty and W. A. Fitz Maurice, simply called "Fitz". We gladly accepted their invitation to San Luis Potosi, their adopted place of residence. We stayed for a few weeks because we liked it very much and we got well together.

Fitz, who is well-known in cactus enthusiast circles (subject Mammillaria, specialty Stylothelae), takes us on field trips showing us interesting plants around San Luis Potosi and well into Guanajuato. With their rich knowledge in the field, Betty and he are experts in their subject. And we are always glad to learn more in an area that indeed interests us but about which we obviously have not the faintest idea. With over 80 published articles in specialist journals and their contacts with everybody who is anybody in the botanical world, they are old hands. But even they can profit a little bit from our knowledge and that's why it is an entertaining giving and receiving that makes our stay here very pleasant. There is an ailing computer that has to be made ship-shape. We try different recipes in the kitchen and then feast on our meals. Last but not least we're happy about the Internet connection where we can update our websites and stay in contact with our friends all over the world.

The climate in San Luis Potosi can be described in a word: "mediterranean". Pleasant winters which for Europeans are more like eternal spring anyway, and in the summertime temperatures never climb into the unbearable because the city lies on the "altiplano", at about 5100 feet. Despite a population of practically 1 million, the city still feels comfortable and a little bit provincial. Many green parks and shady squares invite you to sit and enjoy. Fans of architecture are enthusiastic about the many churches and old convents. Anybody who wants a little bit more life can stroll around the three markets after the siesta where you can buy whatever you want. The stalls are grouped, natural medicine stores in one corner, chile vendors with their mountains of different chiles are located in the middle of the market. You have to look around for the best price for fruits and vegetables - especially if you have light skin and blue eyes as we do! You can also get plastic toys, clothes, shoes, cheap unauthorized copies of music CD's and cassettes, colorful shopping bags, Mexican souvenirs, cheese and lard, and yes, you can even find big rats and rabbits, ready to cook, which are a delicacy here.

There are sections in the streets that are reserved for the shoe shiners. The customer sits on a little "throne", reads the newspaper or chats with the neighbor about everything under the sun while his cowboy boots are being polished until they shine. Opposite there are small one-room stores where barbers and hairdressers go about their daily business. Men with their manually operated sewing machines set up their businesses at a corner. Here you can have your shoes repaired. There are some tables and chairs in a cool arcade where somebody types your letters and documents if you're unable to write.

When we come "home" very exhausted from all the sight-seeing, we can enjoy the cool rooms and the beautiful garden of the Fitz Maurices house. To make things even better, one lives here according to his social position. That's why we have staff here which saves us from tiresome work. Cooking is very nice that way because we don't have to clean up the mess or wash the dishes afterwards. The food is served in the dining room and if we stay longer somebody will have to roll us out of the house pretty soon. Even our sometimes already a little bit holey t-shirts and jeans, which only serve to crawl around in the field between all the thorny plants, shine as clean as they never did before. We get them back to our room ironed! Fortunately, our PocoLoco is very small and we still can manage to do what is necessary for ourselves, and in the evenings we can still serve ourselves drinks. You can get accustomed to such a holiday (from our practically five year long "holiday") amazingly fast...

March 2002

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen