Tuesday, November 01, 2005

In which we hang out in a graveyard for six hours

Once again, today was a Guatemalan holiday. Somehow the Guatemalan and United Statesian calendars have been coordinated so that both have a bunch of holidays this time of year and a long dry spell in March and April. Thus it's imperative that we take advantage while we can.

Many Americans (or at least Americans who took Spanish in high school) are familiar with some elements of the Day of the Dead as it celebrated in Mexico. Basically they make lots of crazy little crafts of skeletons playing in jug bands and what not. Here in Guatemala, many celebrate Day of the Dead by spending the day at the cemetary with their departed loved ones, having a picnic around the flower-strewn graves. In a few towns, the traditions are a bit more elaborate.

We went to the daringly-named town of Santiago Sacatepéquez, where they go to the graveyard and fly giant kites as a symbolic way of reaching out to the spirits of the deceased. We essentially left at dawn, in order to get there while parking wasn't impossible. Fortuitously, this meant we got to see the tidying-up of the gravesites, which mostly involves making the dirt piles orderly and then covering them with a bed of pine needles, stripes of marigolds and a few aloe-like plants. Great care is taken to pay appropriate respect by making each grave very pretty a couple hours before hordes of ten-year olds trample them in frenetic attempts to get their not-exactly ultra-light kites aloft.

The main road leading to the cemetary was lined with market stalls selling food or small kites (or kite supplies). It was almost like watching a parade seeing the bamboo rods, colored papers, and giant balls of rope heading up the hill; along with many of the women carrying flowers for the graves on their heads, which just doesn't get old no matter how many times you see it.

Later in the morning, they started flying the kites, which seemed to get progressively larger and more elaborately decorated. While there were many small kites, there were always a few of the really big ones -- I'd guess most around 10 or 12 feet across -- ready to launch. All the kites are circles of tissue or newsprint on a frame of bamboo spokes. Some of the kids would hold the kite up on top of one of the cement tombs or on a pile of hay, then a team of five or ten other kids would try to run fast enough to pull the kite up to where the serious wind would take hold. More often than not, the flights were brief, and the kite would come crashing down into the crowd causing roller-coaster-style screams. But after a few tries, many of the kites got up, and eventually a few of them disappeared into the clouds, at least until one of the subsequent kites crashed into the high-fliers' ropes and brought them down, too.

The grand finale was the raising of the five-story kites along one side of the cemetary. They (perhaps obviously) didn't fly (although it didn't seem like the 12-footers would fly, either). Mostly they just showed scenes of Mayan history or current life, including messages about pride in tradition and the importance of education.

In all, this was one of the coolest things we've seen in Guatemala. Too often, these kinds of traditions seem to be continued as a shell of their former selves, mostly to suck money out of tourists. Not that we weren't accompanied by a healthy contingent of fellow camera-toting gringos, but the kite-flying did seem in some way genuine -- it was still a community event, not a show for the interlopers, at least for now.

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