Colour, running, excitement, laughter, cheers, food and kites were not what I expected on a day to honour the dead, but then many aspects of the Dia de los Muertos excursion in Santiago, Guatemala were unexpected.
The mode of transport was the first surprise. Our guide collected us in a van which looked like it had been lifted from the set of the original A-Team series, and when the driver changed the number plates I wondered if B A Baracus was hunting them down.
Our getaway vehicle eventually departed and collected a few more international accomplices from various designated safe houses in Antigua. One of our crew, a Finnish woman, suddenly asked me;
“What’s the median age in Guatemala?”
Believe it or not, I didn’t actually know – and I still don’t know.
I assumed her curiosity would be sated by asking the guide of our promised bilingual day trip – but the only bilingual feature of our ‘tour’ to the cemetery was the guide’s direction to meet back at the entrance at a certain time that afternoon. He said it in English and Spanish, and his job was done for the day.
Nobody was too upset. It shouldn’t be that hard to find the distinctive A-Team van among the throng of vehicles, we thought, unless they changed the number plates again.
A ‘tour’ to the Day of the Dead festivities would ultimately be superfluous, because the best thing a visitor can do at the Santiago Sacatepequez cemetery on this momentous day is to simply observe. So, that’s what we did.
We wandered around the cemetery, past families adorned in their finest clothing, making offerings to the graves of their departed relatives. The grave sites were heavily decorated with fresh, bright flowers and garlands, and had been tended by the families who were availing themselves of the opportunity to commune with the dead on this one day of the year.
Our initial concern was to be respectful and passive observers of the festival, because even thought the famous festival had attracted many foreigners to the cemetery, we were aware of the fact that this is a culturally and spiritually significant day for the local people.
Behaving respectfully, in our minds, included not stepping on anyone’s grave. This proved more difficult than it might seem, amidst all of the commotion. It also seemed futile after a short while, when we noticed another unexpected twist to our day.
Groups of young boys were tearing around at full speed, leaping and jumping on and over graves, families, tourists and anything else in their way.
Groups of boys worked in unison in an attempt to connect with the souls of those in heaven. A posse of boys would stand atop a vault and hold a kite, while their buddies held a long piece of twine. A gust of wind would signal the time to release the kite from the vault, upon which the boys at ground level would hurtle themselves at full pace across the cemetery in a desperate attempt to fill the kite with air.
The boys charged, danced, ran and hurdled over anything in their path in a concerted effort to launch their kites. Locals and tourists alike watched with anticipation and cheered and clapped whenever a kite remained airborne, and they ducked for safety when other kites came crashing to earth, lest they too meet their maker.
A number of the kites failed to launch, due to the sheer size and weight of their elaborately decorated kites. For these were not kites purchased at the local toy store for a day at the park. These were bright, handmade, intricately designed works of pride and joy held together by bamboo.
Once a kite was held aloft, its pilot would attempt to send it higher and higher into the sky on the gusts of wind that swept through the hilltop cemetery on this brisk, overcast day. The quest for altitude occupied the boys for hours and hours and focussed their earnest attention as they competed with every other boy for aerial supremacy.
The distinctive kites clearly occupied a central role in the festivities. All of them were brightly decorated, and some boasted joyful designs, while many carried a more serious and sombre message. Evident to all in attendance were messages to end violence and death in Guatemala and to return the country to a state of safety and hope.
These messages adorned the largest of the kites, which had been erected towards the lower half of the cemetery. At one point, a group of older boys and men attempted to launch this kite into the clouds, but not even divine intervention of the spirits of the ancestors would have been enough to send that kite airborne.
Eventually, the strong breeze tore the kite to shreds.
It was eventually time for us to return to our getaway vehicle. The number plates had not been changed, and their was no sign of B. A. Baracus.
Images: Rachelle Blake