Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Dia de Muertos

The 31st of October was a day off the usual course of events. For one, the town's historical core was almost deserted. For the other, our hostel was getting ready for an avalanche of tourists from all over the world, who had booked every single bed in the building. That morning I taught no classes, so I hailed a taxi at the Zócalo and instructed the driver to take me to the College Campus area. The rattly Tsuru II (a modernized 90's Nissan Sentra) drove in shark-like zigzags across the cobblestone streets on to the main Periférico city ring, passing heavy trucks and jaywalkers dressed in native colors. Ten minutes later I found myself under the shadow of a tree-pointed star: I had arrived to the Mercedes truck service center. A week earlier I had arranged for their mechanics to swap the coil springs with taller ones, as well as machining the brake rotors, installing new pads and changing the oil. With a lot of delay but efficient skill, the job was superb: the car now stood high off the ground and right at level. As a freebie, they reinsulated a few wires and fixed an annoying transmission leak from one of the cooler lines. The car was jacked up high in the alignment lift, proudly displaying the classic of the marque to all customers. A turn of the key, and the car purred like a kitten all the way home.

Clean as a whistle and ready for many more miles of trouble-free motoring!
The rest of the day was spent at the reception desk, welcoming our new customers to their accommodations. They came from all over the world, from Australia and Japan to Argentina and Canada, all pumped up to see the celebrations of the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos). My boss called me to congratulate me on the entire setup of the online reservation system; without it we would have hosted only two walk-in customers! Everybody was thrilled about the next two days.

At 7pm, my friends stopped by the hostel to go to the nighttime celebrations together. Amongst them was Syama, a Colombian masseur follower of Hinduism; and Devorah and Noam, a couple from the United States in search of the true taste of Oaxaca. However, that late in the evening, the true taste of the Day of the Dead was not to be found in Oaxaca, but in the little town of Xoxocotlán, just twenty minutes away in my trusty iron steed.

The first thing we did was to head on to the local cemetery, guided by the crowd and smells of food and flowers laid on the tombstones. There was a surprising amount of English speakers, and the atmosphere was casual and relaxed. Decorations were bright and happy, and, in contrast to our way of honoring the dead, many smiles shone amongst the flickering candlelight.

Sometimes an unsteady hand can give way to many photographic surprises!
Past the graveyard gates the air filled with the scent of freshly-cut carnations of all possible colors. The place was pitch dark, with some clouds in the sky; the Moon was not in sight. As I walked past the granite monuments, listening to the whispers of visitors and the quiet shuffling of mud, I discerned the bulky silhouette of a building right in the middle of the yard. It was surrounded by police tape, and I adventured to use my camera flash to reveal its purpose...

A dilapidated Spanish church right in the middle of the Panteón (cemetery).
I felt comfortable in that cemetery. The vibe was inviting and restful –forgive the pun–, discharged of all the heaviness that these environments usually carry with them. There was no grief, no tension; just the humble joy of sharing with those who are still loved, a joy that transcends communication through the stages of life and death. I got to understand this deep love without grief, and thought that grief, as I have known it all my life, may as well be a slightly selfish way of wanting someone to be with us and never leave, a way of denying the natural course of things.

We moved across the narrow street, were a good amount of typical "Sand Carpets" were laid out for the crowd to admire. Many of these consist on traditional Christian symbols, although there were a few that dealt with more folkloric skeleton themes.

A very unique sight in Xoxocotlán: the so-called "Tapetes de Arena", or "Sand Carpets"
The craftsmanship and conveyance of feelings in some of these "tapetes" is spectacular.

From these our group moved on to a much larger, general graveyard. Little kids, dressed in spooky rubber masks alla Halloween, were asking for money or tamales at the door, jumping like little demons in this magical night. In the distance, we heard the cluttered sound of a marching band in one of the paths of the cemetery, cheering the bypasses with some songs of the land.

The many flowers decorating the tombs. Can you imagine the smell?
Guess who wore a poncho and an Indiana Jones hat to fend off the rain...
As I was photographing this, a big marching band cheered a relative of the family next to me!
In all degrees of decoration and cost, everybody participates!

Before leaving, we all gathered next to a solemn group of mariachis and a whole family singing to a loved one. I took off my hat, put it on my chest and wondered at the beautiful, nostalgic tunes coming from the depths of their strings, their trumpets, their voices. It was a theatrical situation, just like a New Orleans funeral, mixing the distant sadness of someone long-lost, and the acceptance hidden in the flashy attires and bright faces of those attending the ceremony. That song conveyed the general feel of the family, missing their relative as one misses a distant land left behind long ago, or a ship that was inevitably sunk in the storm of circumstances.

Next was the food and the music. We toiled our way out of the muddy grounds, on to the main gravel path. As we got out of the Panteón, we happened to bump into Kate Moss. What a surprise!

Eight foot tall, dancing work of art!

Next to the cemetery the streets were lines with tiny, make-shift huts stands with delicious Oaxacan specialties, including tlayudas, enmoladas, roasted meat, fried bananas, and a full assortment of candies, including tiny marzipan skulls and "bread of the dead" (Pan de Muerto).

Delicious sugar and almond skulls... macabre candy! I had one and wish I had taken a few with me.

On our way back we noticed that a symphonic orchestra was just about to start playing in a big pavilion. The program started with a native Mexican composition orchestrated with folkloric instruments, followed by the Hebrides Overture. Unfortunately, due to safety and weather concerns, the orchestra's harp was not brought in that night, so, unfortunately, that left Danse Macabre out. I want to think it was discarded so we wouldn't have skeletons dancing all over.

Back in the hostel, I am slowly preparing myself for resuming the trip. I shall bypass Veracruz all together and invest the money in my stay in Cuba, as I hunt down the lost Gullwing for two weeks. Livinsgtone will soon get a handy accesory that will make it look ten times cooler, so stay tuned on the next update. In the meanwhile, please like my Facebook page (click here) for many untold anecdotes, including people bumping into Livingstone or unexpected kisses on the neck by some guests who may have found their receptionist... rather sexy.

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