Day of the Dead and Other Things

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November 6th 2010
Published: November 30th -0001
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- Sue -

Oaxaca is a great city in which to experience El Dia de los Muertos (the day of the dead). This celebration actually spans several days with highlights (at least this year) on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. The idea behind the festival is that the dead return overnight to commune with their living relatives and loved ones. It is generally party time. People decorate the graves with flowers (mostly marigolds), food, drink and candles. Then they sit around the graves all night and either party or contemplate. What a concept!

The city seems to go all out with processions for the children and their parents, sand sculptures in the Zocalo, an artist competition of sorts for painting/decorating huge skulls maybe made of paper mache, and cemetery decorations.

The sand sculptures and skulls seem to stay around for a week or so. One day over a week ago, trucks brought sand in and moved it into a number of locations in the Alameda (a treed park-like setting) at the top of the Zocalo (the main plaza). Teams of artists then flattened and tamped the sand before mounding it into figures, skulls, skeletons, and all sorts of things. By evening, the artists sifted various colors over parts of the scenes. They were all completed by the next evening. It was interesting just watching them work.

As for the painted and decorated skulls, they still line about 3 blocks of pedestrian street nearby and are very well received and enjoyed by all. We haven't seen or heard of any awards being given out, but we watched as they were each uncovered and inspected by several official looking men and women. It did look like they were being judged. The forms of the maybe 5 foot tall skulls appear to be identical, only the painting and decoration varies. The artist's name and studio affiliation is posted for each one.

Bob and I signed up for a cemetery tour the night of Oct. 31 for $40 each. Twelve of us loaded into a large van and were taken to 3 different places.

The first cemetery was one of Oaxaca's main ones. The square, walled part of the central area contained a covered aisle along which numerous niches held mostly old remains. Each one had a candle in it. Along two of the four walls of the inside side of the aisle, various day of the dead displays had been erected. They consisted of mostly flowers, figurines, foods and photos. We shuffled along with the crowds until we reached the 2 unadorned walls. Once we had circled back to the entrance, we headed across to the center of the area, which was filled with mostly old crypts and the type of elaborate burial plots we see in our and in European older cemeteries. Here, however, they make the most of the room they have - meaning, wow, it sure is crowded in here.

I had fallen back from my tourmates while taking pictures only to discover that Bob was nowhere to be found when we gathered back at the entrance. The rest of the group waited as I returned towards the center searching for him. No luck.

We all then headed back to where our van was parked in hopes he would find his way. Those of you who know Bob are probably thinking "no way" by now. You see, Bob is extremely direction challenged. Yes, he gets lost if he turns around. Was I worried? You bet! However, luck was with us that night, and he managed to find his way. Maybe a ghost helped the unlucky gringo.

We then headed to the nearby town of Xoxocotlan, known around here as Xoxo (pronounced Hoho). Our van found a good parking spot and we climbed out to head for the town's old cemetery. It was a long, long way. Couldn't they have dropped us off and come back later? I guess not.

Anyway, after a hike we arrived at the old cemetery, which was more like what I had imagined. It was alit with candles and crowed with people. We stumbled our way through trying not to trip. A fall here would have been a disaster and could have even been fatal. Even with the candles, it was dark, and the graves were so close together that many times we didn't even have a shoe-width to pass through. The people here seemed a bit more somber and reflective. Maybe that was because it was the old cemetery, so it held long lost relatives. Don't know and we weren't told.

We left that cemetery behind and followed the crowds over about 8 blocks to the new cemetery. By followed, I really mean shuffled while hardly making headway. It seemed to take forever. But, both sides of the road were filled with stands selling everything from art and trinkets to food and drink. At least we had something to look at.

The new cemetery was much more festive and included bands and much frivolity. Apparently, this was party central. We were all dead on our feet by now and thought about joining the departed. After a short stay, we headed for our van. An even slower shuffle back to the old cemetery was followed by a trek through town. Our guide needed a guide to find his way back to the van. We walked and walked. It felt like we went blocks out of our way. One of our group was ultra direction-oriented and ended up leading the way back. My feet still hurt when I think about it.

By the way, I'm going to put more photos in my gallery on this site.

- Bob -

It's been a week. For most of it I've been under the weather. Caught some of the cold that Sue has. This week has been settling in, Dia de Muertos, meeting the neighbors, and local events.

We've pretty much established where we will shop, do laundry, and buy coffee. We found a coffee roaster about 4 blocks from here that makes wonderful Mexican hot chocolate. It's a nice place to sit, sip and relax. I asked the coffee roaster maestro if he spoke English and he responded "Spanglish". I liked the guy immediately. We talked coffee a bit, he showed me his roaster and I told him of mine. His is much bigger than mine; I feel inadequate. We are buying the medium roast house blend of several Oaxacan coffees. Not our Sumatran coffee from home but it does the job.

Dia de Muertos dates from before Cortez and reflects a diferent sense of death. I had many expectations from reading about it and was somewhat let down by the reality of it all. Skulls and skeletons abound, you would think you were in a Grateful Dead album, but the cemetery displays were not as profuse as I had expected. After spending the evening traipsing through several cemeteries and having our "guide" not be able to find our bus to return I decided to cancel our next night's tour which was to go see the costumed dancers in a little village. Good thing, I was sick anyway. Based on reports from people who went I made the right choice. None of it compares to Burning Man in intensity, art, and emotional content. At least for the foreign visitor. There was a display put up by UC Davis Aggies at one cemetery?????

We are meeting our neighbors. All from the US. A young single women studying spanish for a couple months, a couple from Michigan who seem to be taking every tour they come across, a couple from Oregon who are continuing to work online, and Bob & Sue. It's efficient to share discoveries as there is just too much here to find on your own in a single trip.

The most startling thing that has happened is an apparent politcal assasination of two individuals a couple of blocks from here. It ocurred in front of the Santo Domingo church a few days ago. We walked by yesterday and could still see blood and the chalk outlines of where the bodies fell. Sobering.

Tours, ours and others, frequently amount to little more than transportation to a drop off point and being given a time for pickup. Not my idea of a good tour. The tours that we took in Guanajuato were hosted by a certified guide who knew the history and stories of the places visited. Most informative and well worth the pesos. Here in Oaxaca it seems not to be the same.

We are continuing to work on the Spanish. We went to the lending library this morning for and "Intercambios" where you match up with a Spanish speaker and for an hour speak Spanish and for the next hour English. Still have such limited vocabulary that speaking is easier than listening. (but then I have always been like that😉

We are approaching the end of our 2nd week in Oaxaca. It has been a flury of activities and very satisfying. If the next 2 weeks match these 2 weeks it will have exceeded my hopes and expectations.

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