Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY KERRY VAN DER JAGT

There is a bet­ter way to ex­pe­ri­ence the Day of the Dead fes­ti­val in Oax­aca, Mex­ico, and that is to take part.

It’s the wed­ding party from hell. The bride’s make-up is ru­ined and there’s blood on her dress. The pasty-faced groom is wield­ing an axe and the flower girl looks like

Linda Blair in a scene from The Ex­or­cist. Even the priest could pass for an un­der­taker. Yet here I am, an out­sider, danc­ing with the fam­ily and shar­ing tequila shots with the brides­maids.

Mex­ico’s El Día de los Muer­tos, or Day of the Dead, is ev­ery­thing you want a fes­ti­val to be, and then some

– colour­ful, mys­ti­cal, joy­ous, in­clu­sive, satir­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal, con­tra­dic­tory and to­tally life-af­firm­ing. And in­stead of watch­ing the pa­rade from the side­lines, I’m in the thick of it.

We’d gath­ered in Etla Val­ley, a largely indige­nous com­mu­nity on the out­skirts of Oax­aca (pro­nounced ‘Wa-haaka’) in South­east Mex­ico, just as the set­ting sun was cast­ing its golden rays across the fields. With our gar­ish cos­tumes and painted faces, we’d fallen into step be­hind the brass band, ca­vort­ing with corpses, gam­bol­ing with ghouls and shak­ing our mara­cas with enough force to awaken the dead.

Just don’t go call­ing The Day of the Dead a Mex­i­can ver­sion of Hal­loween, as the tra­di­tion orig­i­nated sev­eral thou­sand years ago with the Aztecs as a way to cel­e­brate and hon­our passed loved ones. To­day, the de­parted are still con­sid­ered mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, with their souls re­turn­ing to Earth tem­po­rar­ily be­tween 31 Oc­to­ber and 2 Novem­ber when the veil be­tween the liv­ing and dead is the thinnest.

Since the jour­ney from the un­der­world is long and ar­du­ous, a week of rit­u­als is needed to help guide the spir­its back: elab­o­rate al­tars are built, pan de muer­tos (Bread of the Dead) is baked and all-night ceme­tery vig­ils held. On the fi­nal evening ev­ery­one breaks into party mode, ac­knowl­edg­ing that death is part of life, love is eter­nal and that the gift of life must be cel­e­brated.

My own jour­ney had be­gun a week ear­lier when I’d flown from Mex­ico City to Oax­aca, a city where tra­di­tions are still in­tact and un­ex­ploited by com­mer­cial­ism. By head­ing to a re­mote re­gion, trav­el­ling slowly and join­ing G Ad­ven­tures on

“The shamans of Ca­pu­lal­pam are known as cu­ran­dero, a line of fe­ma­le­only heal­ers whose cus­toms stretch back 1200 years.”

a Na­tional Geo­graphic Jour­ney seven-day Mex­ico’s Day of the Dead in Oax­aca tour I was hop­ing to learn more about the tra­di­tion than a whis­tle-stop visit would af­ford. But first I must be cleansed.

A two-hour drive brings us to Ca­pu­lal­pam de Mén­dez, one of Mex­ico’s des­ig­nated Pue­b­los Magi­cos (mag­i­cal towns) high in the Sierra Madre Ori­en­tal. Cloaked in lush forests and stip­pled with misty moun­tains, the re­gion is the per­fect hid­ing spot for rare birds, jaguars, white-tailed deer and shamans.

The shamans of Ca­pu­lal­pam are known as cu­ran­dero, a line of fe­male-only heal­ers whose cus­toms stretch back 1200 years. “The peo­ple of this vil­lage still abide by tra­di­tional Zapotec laws and con­tinue to speak the an­cient lan­guage,” ex­plains our guide An­drea Be­tan­zos. “They be­lieve that women hold the heal­ing pow­ers, and that it is passed from mother to daugh­ter.”

Judg­ing by the scowl on the cu­ran­dero’s face I’m in se­ri­ous need of some spir­i­tual heal­ing. The first ‘tut-tut’ comes when the chicken egg she is rub­bing across my skull cracks in two. For this trav­esty I’m smoked with char­coal, spat on with sug­ar­cane rum and rubbed within an inch of my life with a se­cond egg.

The next ‘tut-tut’ comes when she breaks the egg into a glass of wa­ter and the yolk sinks like a stone. Through the in­ter­preter I learn that this means some­one is hold­ing dark thoughts against me but, thank­fully, the fresh egg has re­moved the neg­a­tive en­ergy. Af­ter stomp­ing on some herbs (to crush the evil forces) I’m free to go, with a new­found spring in my step.

I meet the Zapotecs again the next morn­ing at the

Monte Al­bán ru­ins, the an­cient city founded in 500BC by the indige­nous pre-Columbian civil­i­sa­tion that once flour­ished in these hilly parts. Sit­u­ated on a flat­tened moun­tain­top, the UNESCO World Her­itage-listed site is dot­ted with the re­mains of al­tars, tem­ples, palaces, pa­tios and plat­forms. With legs and lungs on fire we scram­ble amid the ru­ins, learn­ing how the Zapotecs buried loved ones un­der their houses, a pre­cur­sor for the modern-day equiv­a­lent of keep­ing dec­o­ra­tive al­tars in the fam­ily home.

Back in Oax­aca we are in­vited to watch fam­i­lies con­struct­ing over­sized al­tars as part of the prepa­ra­tions for

El Día de los Muer­tos. Pho­tos of the de­ceased are dis­played along­side can­dles, marigolds, favourite foods and drink­ing wa­ter (the spir­i­tual jour­ney is a thirsty one). The cus­toms are so multi-lay­ered that, in 2008, UNESCO in­scribed the fes­ti­val on its list of In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage of Hu­man­ity.

Daily pa­rades burst forth like ex­plod­ing piñata – one af­ter­noon the chil­dren dress as devils and she-wolves and, on an­other, clans from var­i­ous indige­nous groups take to the streets. There’s even a pa­rade for pets, their wag­ging tails and goofy grins adding to the car­ni­val at­mos­phere.

With our lo­cal guide act­ing as a con­duit, we con­nect even more deeply with the cul­ture – mak­ing gua­camole in a fam­ily home, join­ing ar­ti­sans in their work­shops and buying sugar skulls from the mar­kets. My sense of priv­i­lege at be­ing here is com­pounded when we are in­vited to visit not one, but two vil­lage ceme­ter­ies on the eve of the main pa­rade.

While cel­e­bra­tions vary from place to place, 31 Oc­to­ber is recog­nised as the night when an­geli­tos or ‘lit­tle an­gels’ re­turn to Earth and stay through­out the day vis­it­ing their fam­i­lies. The spir­its of adults visit the fol­low­ing day.

It is near mid­night when we en­ter the small ceme­tery in the indige­nous vil­lage of At­zompa. The peo­ple are hum­ble and most of the graves are sim­ple earthen mounds with wooden crosses, yet on this night they are re­splen­dent in the glow of a thou­sand flick­er­ing can­dles. “Fam­i­lies have been sav­ing all year to buy these can­dles,” says An­drea, point­ing to an elderly lady bur­dened by an arm­ful of branch-sized can­dles.

Fam­i­lies sit on stools, gath­ered in knots around each grave. Many are laugh­ing and shar­ing jokes, oth­ers are cook­ing on open stoves and drink­ing tequila, and some are weep­ing, sil­hou­et­ted in the dark like mar­ble stat­ues. We don’t in­trude; rather we maun­der on the fringe, adding can­dles and flow­ers to those graves with­out vis­i­tors, each of us adrift in our own thoughts about the peo­ple we have loved and lost. Peo­ple once here as vi­tally alive as we are.

The next day, 1 Novem­ber, is the time for cos­tumes and masks. Un­der the hands of a skilled artist I’m trans­formed into a two-faced corpse bride while oth­ers emerge as La Ca­t­rina, a skele­ton form of an up­per-class woman and one of the most prom­i­nent fig­ures in the Day of the Dead cel­e­bra­tions.

Join­ing de­mons and devils, vam­pires and wolves, we take to the streets, spin­ning un­der a van Gogh sky, each of us part of a con­stel­la­tion of gypsy souls burn­ing brightly for this brief mo­ment in time.

It may be the Day of the Dead, but I have never felt more alive. •

Clock­wise from above: Pa­rade through the streets in the Mex­i­can city of Oax­aca dur­ing Day of the Dead cel­e­bra­tions; Graves are fes­tooned with flow­ers and can­dles; The writer (at left) with her new-found friends.

Open­ing im­age: A Mex­i­can woman sits in a crowd out­side the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oax­aca, Mex­ico, for Day of the Dead cel­e­bra­tions.

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Kerry van der Jagt.

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