Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

As I sit on the couch in my hotel waiting for my taxi to take me to the airport, I am a bit of a hot mess. There are faint smudges of white face paint near my ear which I cannot seem to get off, tiny pieces of glitter dusting virtually everything I own (including myself), and my liver is silently waging a protest inside my body – and rightly so. I’ve got my sunglasses on and am clutching my water bottle, relying on it to turn me back into a human being. Despite this, I can’t seem to stop smiling as as I peruse my photos and videos from the past few days. The festivals of Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca fit easily into a list of the top five things I’ve ever done in my life. Simply phenomenal.

What is Day of the Dead?

Called Dia de los Muertos in Spanish, it is believed that during this time of the year the barrier that separates the living from the dead is the most permeable, meaning many spirits come back to visit their families. Every house and every business creates an alter to welcome back their loved ones. Alters contain a picture of the person, lots of food, mezcal, and anything else the person loved (like a special candy, cigarettes, etc.). They also contain both incense and candles which elevates prayers of the living. It is very important to build an alter for a specific person instead of a general alter to the dead, otherwise you could invite back a bad or lost soul. Below are some various alters seen around the city.

Though the actual Days of the Dead are on November 1 and 2, a lot of the festivities begin at least a week in advance. The streets and town center fill with constant parades, street performers and face painters. During the beginning of the week, I filled lots of time simply wandering around – Day of the Dead leads to some top-notch people watching.

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October 31st – Halloween

This is the day that the celebrations really kicked it into high gear. I got my face painted in the market and bought a skeleton costume to match, and went out with some friends to Panteon General – the large, downtown cemetery which was the epicenter for that night’s festivities. Everyone was dressed up – most people with a skull painted on their face. Some people really went all out with stunning dresses and and beautifully drawn faces modeled after Catrina, the famous skeleton symbol of the holiday. Some people wandered around the candle-lit cemetery, admiring both the tombs and the costumes of others. Other people sat in groups around their loved one’s grave while eating, drinking, and celebrating life.

Outside of the cemetery was a carnival, complete with rides and games. Having lost the rest of our group, Jennifer and I decided to try out the teacups. We asked the ride attendant to take our photo as we spun around at high speed, shrieking with delight. Afterwards, we discovered she accidentally took a video, capturing the slow-moving cup spinning around at a pace appropriate for a five year-old. This certainly contradicted our memories of the adrenaline-filled, fast-paced ride, but it did provide us with lots of laughs as we watched it over and over in the taxi home.

November 1st – All Saint’s Day

Day two. Today there was less activity during the day as people stayed home with their families and cooked delicious meals. We spent the day wandering around the city and checking out the craft expos that were set up outside of the cathedral. We had lost track of time, and suddenly the sun began to set and the streets came to life with boys walking on stilts and dancing to the beats of the two parades going on one block apart. After watching them for a bit, we raced home to paint our faces and grab a snack before heading back out to the city center to see what was happening. A few people were going on a tour to a different cemetery about a 30-minute drive outside of the city, but we had opted to stay downtown since there seemed to be so much happening in the streets.

As we walked through the central park with our plastic cups of Corona, we noticed a large parade coming towards us – the brass band blasting the tune and the traditionally dressed girls spinning and dancing. We watched for a little, but soon we were dancing in the parade, too, marching through the streets and twirling to the music. People hung from balconies and lined the sidewalks to cheer and take pictures as we danced along. Dancing in the parade was the highlight of the festivities for me. The parade eventually ended and we made our way back downtown to watch the fantastic street performers – everything from flaming hula hoops to breakdancing.

November 2nd – All Soul’s Day

Day three. After a slow start to the day, we made our way back to the cathedral to see what we could see. The sun was brutal, so we found a rooftop to grab a drink and watch the town from a shady deck with a nice breeze. After a relaxing afternoon, we went back home to get ready. We decided not to paint our faces, but one girl appeared with tubes of glitter and we couldn’t resist decorating ourselves just a little bit.

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After we were all sparkly, we stumbled across a clown doing stand-up comedy in the park, so we joined in the crowd. As the only foreigners in the group, we got noticed. And as the person closest to the front, I got pulled on stage. With his rapid-fire, slang-filled Spanish, I understood maybe 30% of what the clown was saying…but I got the parts that mattered and looked like I understood more. (Success!) I was concentrating so hard on being able to follow along and make sassy comebacks in Spanish before he could make fun of me, that when he asked me my age I said twenty-nine instead of thirty. Oops. I realized it as the word “twenty” was leaving my mouth but it was too late to correct myself. My friends died of laughter. After a few more jokes with a phallic balloon…he released me from the stage and we were off in search of our next adventure. We spent the remainder of the evening dancing in local pubs where I showed off my lack of salsa skills to all.

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Oaxaca – you sure know how to throw a festival. But it’s a good thing it only happens once a year; ready to spend some quality time in a hammock.

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