travelog 47

Knowledgeable Tour Guides

The persons involved are well-known from a previous travel report which was written 2 years ago on the Baja California. This time we meet on the parking lot of the WalMart Supercentre in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Our friends Nesa and Fredy arrive with the bus from Mexico City. They want to make another small round trip with the expert tour guides Etter-Kristen. The planning via e-mail is a lot easier than 2 years ago because there are much more Internet Cafes in the central part of Mexico - or perhaps also because 2 years of developement in the computer business have not failed to leave its mark on Mexico. We wait for our visitors with full fridges and a very clean vehicle. They arrive with a little delay with a taxi cab, with tent and sleeping bags, our chocolate supply from Switzerland, and some spare parts for the vehicle. Of course the reunion in Mexico has to be celebrated with a bottle of champagne!

Within the first days our two friends can feast on some cactus-highlights. The Mexican state of San Luis Potosi is a paradise for the cactus enthusiast! As good tour guides we already drove the planned route and, just to be on the safe side, already searched for many cacti. We remembered their location (not always with success) just to bring no shame on our reputation as conscientious tour guides. The first day passes with the somehow laborious search for Ariocarpus bravoanus. We thought we remembered this locality very well but in the meantime the plants shrank because of the dryness. We make a little slip with our memory of the "very easy to remember" positions of big yucca trees. Fredy, who has no good eye for such tiny and hidden cacti, leaves the search to us. Afterwards he's a little bit disappointed that this Ariocarpus doesn't show much on his video. What the Ariocarpus can't arouse in enthusiasm, the huge specimens of Echinocactus platyacanthus can. The enormous barrels push their big yellow flowers through a woolly top. Another highlight within the first days is a very nice camping spot in the middle of a rich cactus area. Lophophora williamsii, probably better known under the name Peyote, grows in the sandy plains. We've never seen such big cushions before! At this time of the year the plants adorn themselves with delicate pink flowers. Neolloydia matehualensis captivates with its brilliant dark purple flowers. With a little luck we can still find some open flowers of Echinocereus pectinatus. Mammillaria candida, with circles of pink flowers as well, grows in the small cliffs. We have to be careful where we put our feet if we don't want to trample the flat specimens of Ariocarpus retusus. With a well-trained eye we can even find Turbinicarpus schmiedickeanus ssp. klinkerianus in mossy crevices. But Agave lechuguilla, Agave striata ssp. striata, and a Hechtia sp. are predominant here. They grow like a thick ground cover. After the extended explorations of the area we like to sit in the shade of a tree and enjoy a cold beer. The tent is normally well hidden behind our vehicle so that nobody can see it. Our truck also gives some protection against wind and dust but there's nothing anyone can do about the short downpours that sometimes begin in the evening.

After these first days we don't feel like Agavacae- or Crassulaceae-"specialists" but more like experts on cactus. The present from Nesa and Fredy, Ted Andersons monumental book "The Cactus Family Handbook", helps a lot with the identification. We visit the tiny Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus which can only be seen because of his structure in a dry lake bed. A little bit further into the hills we find green, brown and silvery specimens of Astrophytum myriostigma. The plants captivate with their regular shape. We find more Turbinicarpus, flowering Mammillarias, many Ferocacti in bloom (the favourite plants of our Swiss friends), but also epiphytic orchids, and of course our favourites, century plants and stone crops. After two days of camping at an abandoned mine where they once mined for sulphur, we have curious visitors from the nearby village. After the little flies clear off, we can sit pleasantly together around the campfire with a Cuba Libre and enjoy the starry sky.

As good tour guides we can offer our Swiss friends some culinary specialties too. "Papas del Monte" are tiny little wild potatos. Fried in the pan they taste delicious. Squash flowers are in season and we prepare them in scrambled eggs. Of course we feast on juicy fruits, mangos, pineapples, small sweet bananas, guayabas. Beef fillet as much as you can eat, you can get it here dirt cheap. Only with fish we're a little bit careful because we're so far away from the sea. We find our camping spots in very different places. If need be, we even stay overnight next to a cemetery. When we are pestered one night by an already drunken young woman (especially her strong smell from unknown hygiene causes us trouble) who does not want to leave, Martin has to lay down the law for her as the chief of our team. This helps immediately. The woman disappears with her following. Nevertheless, we pack our bits and pieces in the darkness and find a perfect place below a huge Lady-altar (it's a painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of whole Mexico) where nobody dares to bother us anymore.

Like the last time, we have a little surprise up in our sleeves this time too. On our first exploration round trip, we found a little ranch in the mountains that we want to visit again with Nesa and Fredy. We bring "cecina", very thin, air-dried pieces of meat, and of course some bottles of cold beer. The mother and her four daughters prepare the meat and we eat together with the family in their dark and smoky kitchen. The own beans, tortillas from the own maize flour, sweet coffee with a taste of cinnamon, and a spicy salsa from wild chiles taste delicious. Afterwards we sit for a long time under the starry sky. The housewife sorts out beans, and the girls listen politely to our singing which, sometimes more than wrong, is accompanied by the guitar player Fredy. The next day we promised the family to take pictures of them that we want to print out instantly. In the morning we see the girls in nice dresses but when we point out that we should take advantage of the beautiful morning light, the entire family disappears in a little house. First of all the father, a very lively Mexican with a French grandfather, comes back. He wears his best trousers, a whiter-than-white shirt, and his most beautiful sombrero on his head. After one hour of waiting, we finally get impatient. The father puts his foot down: "Mujer !" ("Woman!"), whereupon his wife and the four daughters in her wake immediately appear. We nearly have a fit!

The hair loose and combed gleaming, with a discreet make-up, the two young girls in pink little laced dresses, the middle one in pink too, and the oldest one in a long purple evening dress with spaghetti straps, black high heels, mica make-up on her cheeks, and the two inevitable Michael Jackson curls hanging in her face. The mother too, whom we only know in her everyday apron, is almost unrecognizable. All of that happens far away from the next town, on a ranch with cows and goats, where the head of the household devotes himself to his passion, the breeding of fighting cocks. Martin plays the photographer who has to fight with the shy daughters. They don't dare to look him, as a man (and as a stranger too), into the eyes. The parents admonish their daughters not to laugh at all because this would ruin the picture. The two sons (the other 6 children work in the US) loaf around far away. Only later they see the photographs, crack jokes, but we can see that they are very jealous of their sisters. Of course we have to make a group picture with the Swiss guests too. I'm the only one who throws myself quickly in a miniskirt, a white blouse and black shoes, and the family applauds. The others stay in their field dresses for the picture. After that we quickly change again and the women disappear in the kitchen to prepare a delicious late breakfast for us.

Even two weeks have to come to an end sometimes. We say goodbye to Nesa and Fredy at the bus station in Guanajuato. They are more adventurous and brave since their last visit, they learned some Spanish too and that's helpful when traveling in this country. That's why they leave for more adventures after our round trip: the Tequila factory in Tequila and the famous train ride through the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon). For a few days we enjoy the little town of Guanajuato with the many colorful little houses which are built into the many hills, the winding narrow streets, the shady plazas where, on a hot afternoon, we can pleasantly drink a cold (and expensive) beer while we devote ourselves to one of our favourite activities - to watch strolling people.

April 2002

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen