I sat on the brightly painted gravestone contentedly munching on my sweet and salty snacks attempting to take in the overwhelming jumble of activity around me. The cemetery was overflowing with people from all walks of life. To my left was a family joyfully sharing food on bright green and orange grave, to my right a jovial-looking vendor offering shiny wooden jewelry atop his carefully selected and decorated grave. As I sat contemplating the amazingly celebratory atmosphere of the cemetery I saw a brilliantly decorated kite soar down towards my head. I ducked down laughing along with my fellow spectators thoroughly enjoying the action of the day.
I was in the Guatemalan town of Santiago Sacatepéquez which once a year is inundated with throngs of Guatemalans and keen tourists to celebrate ‘El Día De Los Muertos’, The Day of the Dead. A short trip from the tourist hub of Antigua on the 1st of November every year the celebrations also known as All Saints Day draw crowds from all over. The main event is the flying of the most spectacular kites symbolically freeing the spirits of passed away family members.
Preparations had begun long before I arrived. In the weeks leading up to the festival groups of dedicated locals spend hours building and beautifying these flying wonders. The designs are colorful, intricate and the images hold special meanings for their creators. Closer to the festival in the days preceding while the finishing touches are being made to the paper and bamboo structures that will be sent to fly, the cemetery and graves are also readied for the big day. Whole families spend time together to clear debris, add a fresh coat of paint and freshly cut flowers to the graves of loved ones.
The are kites are seriously impressive varying in size from the most manageable to the giants whose brightly decorated designs tower over the onlookers below.
For the midsized kites of around three meters it takes a whole team of people and sometimes many attempts before it takes flight. They stand readied with gloves or tape wrapped around their hands for protection from rope burns, their faces determined and eager preceding the take off. Once it begins the mad run takes up to fifteen people and sometimes the help of bystanders who pull the kite strings while running wildly through the crowd, faces turned upward in the hope of aviation success.
When the kite starts to soar through the sky, the sun blazing down through its brightly colored patterns there is always a cheer from the excited audience before turning to their attention to the next flight attempt.
The event goes way beyond the cemetary with the winding streets that lead to the cemetery crammed with vendors of goods of every kind from clothes and jewelry to batteries and pets. The whole town resembles a bustling marketplace in which you could spend hours wandering and happily haggling.
And the food….Oh my the food! It could be an article all in itself to describe the wondrous array of food available. The restaurants are full to bursting and offer specials for this, their biggest day of the year. The street vendors offer delicacies at a bargain price, from homemade pork sausages to barbecued corn slathered with generous servings of salty butter….ah and the list goes on! If only my stomach was larger I would happily have eaten all day long.
To me, what was special about spending a day at this event was witnessing the beauty of celebrating in a place that for most Westerners is associated with tears and sadness. Families and friends take time once a year to celebrate, all be it a celebration tinged with sadness, as they remember together those that have gone before them. They gather together symbolically setting their souls free to beautifully soar through the sky and we, the tourists, get to be apart of that celebration, sadly only for a day.