“Cerveza, cerveza?” hollers the vendor, above the hullabub of humanity that’s hunching its way across the graveyard of Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala.
Kites flutter overhead, their larger cousins punctuating the ground and the skyline.
Graves of the moneyed serve as a picnic-table for tucking into El Fiambre, the traditional festival dish that honours the dead. Kids are passed to parents, who haul them up 6 ft stone freshly-painted mausoleums for a birds-eye view.
All Saints Day in Guatemala (Dia de Todos Santos) on 1 November is – on first impressions – one big party in a graveyard.
Pulsating colours scream out from 60 ft tall paper kites, which tower over the chaotic scene below.
Still others line the earth, ropes binding them to a wooden stake and their eventual standing point; levered by their proud architects with huffing and bluster into their elevated position.
Months of painstaking sweat and tears by the town’s families, clubs and societies are reflected in the detailed designs.
A family emblem to reach out to the soul of a departed friend or relative.
A Mayan tradition.
A social call to action.
A political statement.
A kite raised and flown successfully brings kudos. One whose supporting bamboo structure collapses makes grown men cry.
Kites can be lost within seconds to the dry earth, joining the departed whose marigold-topped earthen mounds far outnumber the formal mausoleum-style graves.
Smoke rises, fire courses through the kites’ paper and bamboo in the day’s ceremonial climax, allowing the souls to return to their resting place.
Back to the earth that holds them, rich or poor. Respect and honour binds both together in remembering their dead.
Practicalities of All Saints Day in Guatemala
- Heed the local advice and leave your valuables behind. Pickpockets target the town for the day, so only carry what you need.
- Suspend your British / Western sensibilities. People honour their dead here by being close to them, so stepping or sitting on a grave isn’t a social no-no.
- Any accommodation / tourist agency in Antigua can arrange a transport shuttle to the town of Santiago Sacatepéquez. Count on around $10 or thereabouts for a seat on a rickety bus. Book a day or two before. There are also (cheaper) public buses.
I experienced All Saints Day on 1 November 2013.