January 18th, 2019

Coming alive for the Day of the Dead

By Medicine Hat News on January 5, 2019.

Photo by Mansoor Ladha A group of local residents with painted faces get ready to take part in the Day of the Dead parade.

Mansoor Ladha

Special to the News

By some fortunate coincidence, I happened to be in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, famous for Mexican fiestas. One has to be there, especially on Nov. 2 to witness the Day of the Dead, the largest and most vivid festivities and experience the electric atmosphere, with energy and liveliness buzzing through every corner of downtown. Mariachi bands play on the street corners, while men and women dressed as skeletons dance under the moonlight.

Puerto Escondido, located in the state of Oaxaca, comes to life with music, festivities, parades and costumes on the Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead.

The locals believe that spirits return from the afterlife to reconvene with their loved ones. Nov. 1 honours the souls of children, calledangelitos (little angels), who have passed away, while Nov. 2 culminates with a celebration for the souls of adults, and the La Caravana de la Muerte parade.

During the festival, representatives from Indigenous communities come together and celebrate the diversity of their traditions and cultures. Oaxaca is Mexico’s most culturally diverse state, home to 16 different ethnolinguistic groups, who gather wearing their traditional clothing and perform folk dances that are particular to their region.

In each city market, elaborate initiation ceremonies take place with necessary items displayed for the arrival of the dead which would include ingredients of traditional dishes and sacred altars dedicated to the deceased decorated with a wide assortment of flowers, regional fruits such as oranges, limes, bananas, apples, nuts, pineapples and pumpkins.

Altars offer a peek into a stranger’s life. On one of the altars, dedicated to a lifeguard who died while on duty, his framed photograph was prominently displayed in the centre and among other things, a couple of cans of Corona beer. (He had good taste!) Another had a guitar, some coffee, a bottle of mescal and cigars. Mexicans believe that after their long pilgrimage from the other life, the dead arrive on earth tired and thirsty. Because of this belief, the dead are welcomed with a glass filled with water placed on the altar with other food offerings

D’a de los Muertos has been celebrated in Mexico as early as the 1500s, Previously, it was held in August and considered a harvest festival, but Catholic influences moved it to November to overlap with All Saints’ Days and All Souls’ Day.

Pedro, a local resident participating in the street dance, described it as a time where they remember the deceased by celebrating what they enjoyed doing when living. “It is also a time when we reflect on how fortunate we are to be living our best life while creating new experiences and memories,” he said. “It’s our way to honour the dead and to remember the departed loved ones. Once a year, we take time to remember what they did for the family. Day of the Dead is about the full circle of life, it’s not a sombre thing.”

Celebrating the cycle of life

Music rings through the streets as the city comes to life and its people honour the dead. Day of the Dead is a celebration of the cycle of life, explains Pedro, adding that Mexicans believe that one’s soul lasts forever. “When one dies, the flesh is gone and all we are left with is the bones. One’s soul resides in the bones, which are celebrated after death.”

Altars are built in homes, on the streets all across the city and in cemeteries days leading up to the festival, allowing passers-by to consider theofrendas(the offerings). The altars typically include a photo of the departed as well as symbols and gifts left for the loved one as a way to welcome him or her home.

On Nov. 2, especially reserved for the souls of the adults, it is customary also to decorate graves in cemeteries with flowers, candles and food. Altars for children will offer candy and toys.

Musicians with drums, trumpets and other musical instruments lead a parade of people dressed in colourful costumes, painted faces and wearing different masks, dance on the streets. Onlookers and visitors lining the streets are welcome to join in the festivities. As the night progresses, crowds begin to leave, but a number of families sit around the graves of their loved ones sharing in a moonlit picnic.

This part of Mexico is not about death only; there is plenty to do for enjoyment of life to the fullest. After a hectic day of celebration, next day we visited Puerto Escondido’s public market, the heart of most Mexican towns, which represents the traditional way to shop. As someone born in East Africa, I was fascinated by the market and its similarities to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s famous Kariakoo Market which has hundreds of stalls and stores selling everything from fresh fish, meat, vegetables, fruits to clothing, kitchenware and electronics. There is also a section of cafes and restaurants serving food at reasonable prices for those who are hungry.

The market is a one-stop shopping, offering human interaction and a timeless ritual. However, for buying imported goods and liquor, shoppers have to go to an air-conditioned supermarket, called Super Chedraui, patronized mainly by expatriates and tourists.

Visit downtown

Downtown Puerto Escondido has plenty of restaurants, offering various types of cuisine. Our choice was made easier as we were taken by our guide to Fresh Restaurant and Lounge on Zicatela Beach, operated by a Canadian who fell in love with the area so much that he decided to open his open-air restaurant and become a local. While enjoying the tropical breeze right in front of the ocean, we were served with a delicious sampling of appetizers and catch of the day, mahi mahi, for me.

I highly recommend a visit to Villa Carrizalillo Hotel’s roof-top eatery, Espadin, which provides a magnificent view of the ocean and nearby Carrizalili Beach. The menu features seafood caught that morning, with dishes such as crispy red snapper stuffed with shrimp, squid and octopus, a pumpkin-seed-crusted fish fillet with bell-pepper sauce and coconut shrimp with achiote salsa. Whatever entree you choose, the must-try side dishes are the watermelon guacamole and the sweet plantains. Espad’n also offers a list of signature cocktails and a comprehensive selection of the regions finest mezcals.

One of the unique experiences offered at the Vivo Resort, where we stayed, was that guests are invited to participate in helping to release baby turtles in the sea. Tiny, two-inch turtles were brought by buckets to the edge of the water at sunset and watching these new lives set out on their journey is truly a profound encounter that can only be experienced to understand.

To get the feel of an authentic Mexican experience, one has to visit Leguna de Manialtepec, a coastal lagoon about 18 kilometres from Puerto Escondido. The lagoon, whose name when translated, means “the hill where water is born,” opens to the sea during the rainy season. Majority of tourists explore the lagoon by boat or kayak so as to get close to the wildlife and multiple species of birds, wild ducks and storks. Our party was the object of jealousy when we returned to the resort and told other guests about our good fortune at viewing a huge crocodile with its baby on the bank of the lagoon.

Interestingly, the lagoon becomes phosphorescent four times a year due to a certain type of algae found there. The organism’s luminescence is activated by the movement of the water and at night, streaks of light can be seen due to the movement of fish (and humans) in the water.

Our day trip to Laguna Beach, which has more than 100 restaurants, quaint cafes and bistros to fine dining establishments, along the seven-mile span of coastline, ended with an authentic Mexican lunch.

A visit to Puerto Escondido was quite a learning experience for me in that we all know that death is inevitable, but during D’a de los Muertos, death was celebrated, not feared and the souls and the memories of the departed ones live on through generations.

Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based journalist, travel writer, columnist and author of Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West and A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims.

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