Churches, convents, and crypts, oh my!

Saturday morning we headed over the San Francisco, an old church in Potosi. The guide was young and energetic and showed us lots of interesting things. We started by looking at paintings on the four walls surrounding a large courtyard, mostly on the subject of San Francisco de Assisi. Then we went into the main church sanctuary and he showed us the miraculous image of the Señor de la Veracruz. It’s a giant sculpture of Jesus on the cross made from one piece of cactus. It’s really quite beautiful. The “miraculous” part comes from the story of its origin. The statue showed up unexpectedly on the church’s doorstep one day, but headless. Then three guys came to town and offered to fashion a head. Not knowing these guys, they were asked to stay isolated in a room for three days, which they did. They never ate a thing. When the people went to the room to see why they weren’t eating, the dudes were gone. The statue of Jesus suddenly had a head, and it looked as if it had been part of the statue from the very beginning.

We got to look at more paintings, including an interesting one that depicted what happens after death with graphic scenes from hell, etc. There was another interesting painting depicting the Catholic church as a ship with a crucified Jesus as the mast. Among the many enemies depicted dying in the water were various figures who represented Protestants, including one labeled “Calvin.”

Our guide then took us into the catacombs, the crypt if you will, where the dead of the church were buried. There were four crypts: one reserved for the priests and the others for the people. We didn’t actually see any bodies, because the crypt we were in is empty. It was flooded many years ago, and so all the bodies that were once there were moved to the other crypts and sealed.

From under the earth we rose up to climb numerous sets of stairs (including another Indiana Jones-esque spiral stone staircase) to reach a pinnacle of the church where we had another spectacular view of the city. (There must be 5 or 6 different “miradors” or “lookout points” around this town)

After San Francisco, we met with Tio David and family at a restaurant to eat a unique soup called K’alaphurka. It’s a corn soup with crispy pork pieces, beans, potatoes, and lots of spices. It is served in clay bowls, into which is dropped a large red-hot stone. The result is a bubbling, popping soup volcano. It was very tasty and a unique experience. To temper the spiciness, a bowl of mote (a large white corn) was also available to eat between spoonfuls of soup.

After lunch, we went to the Convent San Teresa for a two-hour tour. Believe it or not, there was enough stuff here to truly fill up the two hours. The nuns in this convent led a life we would consider truly strange, maybe even cruel.

This was an exclusive convent. To get in, a girl had to be exactly 15 years old and her parents had to pay the equivalent of $100,000 in money or artwork or property. Once the girl was dropped off, she never got to see the outside world with her own eyes again. Not even her own parents. Even in death, they remained at the convent, where they were buried. And no family was invited to the wake. Yikes.

There was tons of artwork and countless figurines of various versions of the virgin Mary. When girls arrived, their hair was cut and their nice dresses confiscated. The hair and dresses were later used to produce costumes and hair for the figurines, as well as robes for the priests.

And mirrors were forbidden. The girls never got to see themselves again. They lived in an insular world. This didn’t change until sometime in the 1960s. Now the nuns interact with the outside world and have a three-month trial period before becoming full-fledged nuns.

There is apparently a room in the convent that displays metal chains the nuns used to inflict pain on themselves as a means to overcome temptation and evil thoughts. We didn’t get to see that room, because 7 years ago some Mexican writer came and took photos of the room and wrote a fantasy novel based on this one room. For a while after that, people came to the convent only to see this room because of that book. So they closed the room and haven’t reopened it to the public since then.

Obviously, despite the oddities of this life, the nuns were fiercely dedicated. They spent every moment of time productively, whether it was embroidering, baking the communion wafers for the city, copying manuscripts, or whatever.

While we were touring the convent, it began to rain. And it didn’t stop until we went to sleep later that night. Consequently we got soaked. Neither of us brought many winter clothes. And honestly, we haven’t much needed them before coming to Potosi. But it is cold here. I would hate to be here in the winter (it’s summer now). And since it’s summer, nobody uses their heaters. So every building is cold. There’s no escaping it. Oh well.

But we ship out later today (Sunday) for the lower-altitude and sunnier Sucre. Hopefully all will go well.

About Josh Renaud

Josh Renaud is married to Yoli and together they have four beautiful niñitos. Find him on Twitter (@Kirkman) or Google+.
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