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Breaking continuity here to bring you this somewhat timely post!

(And for those who signed up to get updates by email eons ago, we’ve finally got that going so thanks for your patience!!! Feel free to check out the rest of our journal entries if you haven’t yet.)

We originally had no plans on being anywhere specific for Día de Muertos; we figured we’d just experience it wherever we ended up during that time. During discussions with fellow travelers we met along our way through Baja, however, we kept hearing that everyone was planning on making Oaxaca City in time for Day of the Dead. Supposedly it’s the most traditional celebration? We were intrigued and decided to join them to experience it firsthand.

Now, our limited previous experience with Día de Muertos pretty much consisted of what Britt had remembered from her northern Minnesota high school Spanish class and the popularity in recent years of people doing the fancy skull face painting around Halloween time (which is actually called calavera or ‘Catrina‘ face paint).

Essentially, it’s a time of year when the living spend time with the dead. Altars, made to honor and celebrate the departed, are decorated in marigolds, pan de muerto, and sugar skulls along with favorite food, drink and items of the deceased. It is believed the souls of the dead come to visit during this time of year, so the food and drink is offered to replenish hunger and thirst sustained from the spiritual journey. In Oaxaca and other areas known for more traditional observation of the holiday, which occurs Nov. 1-2, people gather around the graves of their loved ones cleaning and decorating them, praying, sharing stories and playing music.

Our first night in Oaxaca (Oct. 31) we were reunited with some traveler friends we met earlier in the journey. Gathered in the zócalo (main square), a few of us got our faces painted before hopping in a taxi to the nearby village of Xoxocotlán. When we got there, we headed to the cemetery (there are two in Xoxo, viejo and nuevo—we went to the nuevo). It is packed with both tourists snapping photos and families bringing decorations for graves.

The three of us who got our faces painted in the square: Britt, Audrey and Raquel. Photo credit: Audrey’s husband.

The cemetery is glowing in candlelight. Those who are there remembering family members are huddled around their graves, passing a bottle of mezcal or a plate of food around while sharing with curious passersby the story of the family member they are honoring that night. For many, it is grandparents and parents. Some come for their sister or brother, while others say a prayer for a lost child.

Most are not in mourning, however. Excepting those who have suffered very recent losses, people seem to be in good spirits and are even welcoming. It felt strange to us, walking around a cemetery where we don’t know a soul, admiring the grave decor, at times quite intricate, and gathering the courage to take a photo or two. We felt like we were intruding on some sacred ceremony. This… this is the big tourist draw?

The way we felt, which was slightly uncomfortable mixed with a bit of marvel, could be attributed to a few things.

For one, visits to grave sites are not typically accompanied with music or laughter in the U.S. We as a society seem not as comfortable with death, whether that be talking about it or just acknowledging that it’s something we’ll all face one day. Maybe it’s from growing up in a small town, but it almost seems taboo to speak of the dead for fear of bringing people’s spirits down.

For two, having lost Ehren’s mom so suddenly and unexpectedly this past spring, it hit a little close to home. It made us think about how we could honor and celebrate her. Maybe it’s in watching that episode of The Big Bang Theory in our hotel room in Tehuacán, one of her favorite shows. Or knowing that she would have really loved wandering around Monte Albán. Or maybe it’s thinking of her when we take that first sip of warm tea on a chilly night.

Fortunately, the Día de Muertos traditions didn’t end there. On Nov. 1, we were treated to a parade of costumed revelers led by a lively brass band right at our airbnb, which is actually an art and concert venue. While we were observing some glassblowers at work, we heard a commotion outside. In filtered a parade from the neighborhood, filling the courtyard below us.

The glassblowing studio at La Calera was recently finished, and these two (Diego and Marcus) are the guys manning the glass. Ehren was enthralled and spent most of the night watching and asking questions about the process.

After watching them dance and help themselves to the complimentary bread and hot chocolate, they drifted inside the main building. Britt went down to get more photos while Ehren stayed to continue watching the glassblowers.

While snapping pics from the outskirts of the room, a ghoul came out to Brittany and, grabbing her by the hand, dragged her into the circle of costumed dancers. Among the fray was a skeleton scarecrow, two druid-type characters with staffs of tree branches, a purple witch and a giant leprechaun. She danced like a dork for a while, getting caught up in the energy of everyone else, not even caring that she was the only person in the middle of the floor not in costume (and also with giant camera in hand).

The girlfriend of one of the glassblowers performed an aerial hoop routine, set to a Beats Antique track.

In the thick of it.

And that’s what it took to turn it all around.

It’s a celebration! There’s no time for sadness! You can pray and reminisce and also have a good time—that’s what it’s all about. Rejoicing in the life that you have, and for the lives that have gone before.

After the parade left to continue on its way downtown, we stayed behind for a dinner featuring traditional Oaxacan foods (and of course the obligatory mezcal). While we don’t remember the names of everything we ate, it included dishes prepared by local chefs: tostadas topped with interesting beans, cheese and herbs; a spicy soup; freshly made tortillas with local maize ground right before us; a traditional turkey stew (we were told the menu was originally going to feature venison, but because of the light of the full moon the deer could easily see and run from those hunting them, so they were unsuccessful in bagging one for the dinner); and some sort of chocolate sponge cake topped with toasted banana for dessert. During dinner we chatted with people from all over the world who make it a point to reunite in Oaxaca at this time of year, along with a few locals happy to teach us about Oaxacan traditions.

Preparing the table for the guests.

Preparing the food for the dinner.

Preparing the tummy for the eating.

On Nov. 2 (which is the actual Day of the Dead), we did laundry, showed some friends around our airbnb, La Calera (an old limestone factory with some pretty neat art installations—see link above), and went to a restaurant for mole tastings (there are seven different kinds of moles in Oaxaca state, specific to different regions and times of the year, and we tried them all!).

The first three moles we tried: amarillo, chichilo (this mole is traditionally served during Day of the Dead) and verde. Ehren’s favorite was the amarillo.

The rest of the seven total moles we tasted. These were a bit sweeter. From the left: rojo, coloradito, manchamantel, and negro. Britt’s favorite was the coloradito.

Afterward we tried to go see the movie Coco (a new Disney/Pixar animated film with a plot concerning Día de Muertos, it comes out in the states later this month) but it was sold out, so we got some candy and a taxi ride back to our place and streamed a tv show.

A pretty mellow way to spend this once-in-a-lifetime experience in Oaxaca.

But it later occurred to us that, in doing what we did, we inadvertently spent the day doing things that Vicki would have enjoyed: exploring different cultural perspectives, tasting new foods, spending time catching up with friends, eating something sweet and having a quiet evening watching a show together.

At it’s core, the Day of the Dead celebrations remain deeply personal, even with all the outward traditions and welcoming nature of those partaking in the festivities. People have their own ways of remembering their dead.

And this experience has helped us become more comfortable in celebrating our own.

(Our next entry will continue where we left off with our travels though Baja)

 
 

3 Comments

  1. Very interesting. I’ll be looking forward to your next letter.
    Thank you,
    Milt McCoy

     
  2. A wonderful recounting! Keep em coming. Thanks for taking me along on your ride.

     
  3. Great report, well written. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to many more postings.

     

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