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Day of the Dead: Connecting with the dead in Guatemala

Photography by Flash Parker Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Flash Parker

Travel

Day of the Dead: Connecting with the dead in Guatemala

The halcyon days of my youth exist in my memory, like albums filled with old family photographs. As I get older, I find myself flipping through those images more often, espe- cially as my work takes me farther away from loved ones for extended periods. I clung to my youth for nearly 30 years, but when cold-hearted Time suddenly and without warning took away my Aunt Linda in March 2012, I was faced with the grim realities of adulthood: We grow up, we grow old, and we die.

Because of what I do—I’m a photojournalist who is here today and there tomorrow—I’ve always had a difficult time saying goodbye, and I’m no good at reconciling loss. Until recently, I was always confident that my family would stay right where I left them. My aunt and I were close; she was my mother’s older sister, and usually the first person I’d see in the stands at my football games, science fairs and graduations. Linda was one of the most supportive and encouraging people I’ve ever known—she liked to crow to her friends that she kick-started my career when she gave me my first film camera on my 17th birthday.

During the last few months of Linda’s life, I was on the road a lot. She wrote quite a few emails, but I always put them aside, thinking, I’ll email when I’ve got time to respond properly.... And then time ran out. This made her death more difficult to bear, and the pomp-filled western approach to laying someone to rest made things worse. To me, we build a funeral into something grand so that, when it’s over, we can feel good about sending the departed into the ephemeral mist while we go on living. My issue was I didn’t want to forget—I wanted a better way to remember.

My last conversation with Linda was in 2011, shortly after Halloween. I was on assignment in South America, deep in the heart of a place wildly foreign to the rest of my family, but my aunt knew her way around a map. “Are you in one of those countries that paint the skulls?” she asked. I told her the big Day of the Dead festivals were held in Mexico and Guate- mala. “I’ve heard of the Dia de los Muertos,” she said. “Guatemala is the one with the Festival of Giant Kites, which locals use to communicate with the dead. Can you imagine what they’re saying?” At the time I couldn’t, and it took me more than a year to muster the courage to visit Guatemala with my own farewell message.

The eve of Dia de los Muertos
On Oct. 31, the cobbled streets of the colonial city of Antigua heave in festive anticipation. Ladies in variegated outfits adorn their tostadas with purple cabbage, the canary-coloured La Merced Church proudly sports a garland of freshly cut flowers, and youth dressed like Miley Cyrus cram into tuk-tuks with fireworks and bottles of Ron Zacapa under their arms. The city’s elderly baroque bones love an old-fashioned shake and rattle, but I’ve come for something more subdued. I cross Plaza Union and pause for a moment to embrace the beauty of the ruins of the Santa Clara Convent and to buy a small paper kite from a street vendor. Then I step back in time across the great wooden threshold of Casa Palopó Antigua, an immaculately restored colonial home that betrays the calendar only by displaying dates on the bottles of rum in the bar.

I’ve accepted an invitation to a dinner party hosted by chef Mirciny Moliviatis that promises to explore themes of family and tradition. Chef Moliviatis’s molecular gastronomic genius brings to life the capricious cuisine of her childhood; her deconstructed sopa de frijol and whimsical popcorn pork rinds are playful nods to her grandmother’s home cooking, and remind me of when I used to sneak into the kitchen during the holidays to watch my mom, my aunt and my grandmother spin their Austrian magic.

Adventure comes to the table disguised as fiambre, a traditional Guatemalan salad made from more than 50 ingredients, often served as a precursor to the Day of the Dead festivities; I consume the blood sausage and olives with abandon, but high step over the brussels sprouts. Dinner guests at the long wooden table take turns sharing stories of favourite childhood meals, each of us spending a few moments to raise a glass to someone we’ve lost.

Sending a message to the dead
Every Nov. 1, Sumpango, an otherwise sleepy village in the Sacatepéquez District, welcomes more than 10,000 revellers keen on communicating with the dead during the Feria de Barrilete Gigante, or the Festival of Giant Kites. I’ve made the short trip from Antigua, but as I stare out over the dusty soccer pitch crowded with huge kites, I feel as though my medium-size version, less than a metre wide, may be an inadequate messenger. Some of the intricately designed tissue-paper giants, adorned with Mayan cosmological icons, stand 20 metres tall and require the strength of a dozen people to heft their creaky bamboo skeletons into the air, where I believe sheer force of spirit keeps them aloft. When these giants do fly, they carry the tidings of the entire village with them.

I’m not quite ready to fly my kite, so I wander. I visit a half-dozen food stalls, sip chicha de jora, a fermented corn beer, and dress my kite with a few paper-thin accents before descending into the graveyard, where children flit among the headstones in an effort to elevate their own tiny kites. Jubilation hangs on the air, an unexpected mood in a cemetery packed with mourners. Tombstones and burial mounds are decorated with fresh flowers and paper ornaments, while families picnic in the intervening spaces.

I unfurl my kite and look skyward, but trip over a fresh mound and land on my backside in front of an elderly woman hanging a garland from a wooden cross. I’m terribly embarrassed, but she waves my worries away, takes me by the hand, and tells me of how she’s come to visit her husband on their first year apart. She speaks to him of what he’s missed—the wedding of their youngest son—and the year ahead, and says this isn’t the time or place to mourn. Dia de los Muertos is about reconnecting and staying in touch. She tells me to keep that in mind when I finally fly my kite.

Searching for the perfect spot
I drift farther afield in my search for the perfect fly zone and land on a volcanic ridge at Lake Atitlan, a mammoth crater lake where a trio of towering volcanic sentries keeps watch over a dozen picturesque Mayan villages. Dia de los Muertos is a big deal in the villages of Lake Atitlan, and the aftermath is evident; the streets of Panajachel, the main town, are quiet, while bits of tissue paper cling to updrafts overhead. I stroll through the village of Santiago Atitlan, where locals hold fast to ancient Mayan and Tzutujil traditions—the most fascinating of which is the cult of Maximón, a venerated folk saint cared for by the religious brotherhood of the Cofradías.

According to legend, the spry and dapper Maximón visited Santiago and simultaneously bedded all the village wives. When the Cofradías returned from the fields, they punished Maximón by chopping off his arms and legs—then flipped the script and decided to honour him as an icon who brings wealth and success to those who ask (and provide an offering). I slip into Maximón’s shrine in time to witness a Cofradías tip the stunted effigy back for a sip of rum, which he chases with a cigarette. I offer Maximón a few quetzals before I leave, bent on dipping my toes in the cleansing waters of the lake.

My guide regales me with tales of Atitlan’s guardian serpent and the ruins of the city of Sambaj, the largest of Atitlan’s archeological sites, located more than 18 metres below the surface. The ruins are more than 2,500 years old, yet still people carry the memory of, and communicate with, the departed. I finally feel like I’ve found a place where I’m comfortable bringing up the dead.

Remembering the deceased
I hike some 150 stone steps from the shore to Casa Palopó Atitlan, a hotel built into the hills near the village of Santa Catarina. Palopó Atitlan, with its rustic elegance and charming decor, is the sort of place my aunt would want to stay forever. I picture her telling me to take a photo of the sweeping panorama while she helps the bartender craft the world’s strongest Irish coffee, before raising her glass to a wild sunset caught on the lips of the volcanic triumvirate. I use my instant camera to snap a picture of the lake, and fix the print to the wing of my kite.

With night falling, I toss the kite into the air and let the wind take hold, hardly slowing the line as it slips through my fingers. Before long, the kite is out of sight, carrying what I hope is the first of many messages to a place I’m not quite ready to visit. I make a promise to send postcards to my family from every stop on the road from now on.

A guide to Antigua, Guatemala
The charm of Palopó
Guatemalan culture and tradition are part of the
very foundation of the Casa Palopó properties. Palopó Atitlan is a stylish, private retreat with nine unique suites that reflect the artistic heritage of the region. Dine at 6.8 Palopó, which serves traditional Guatemalan and international fare (casa palopo.com).

Upon a rarefied air
Trek or ride on horseback to the Indian’s Nose above San Juan and San Marcos at Lake Atitlan for thrilling views.


Atitlan is one of Central America’s best hang gliding destinations.

Visit the handicraft markets; each of Atitlan’s towns has its own, and many sell Day of the Dead souvenirs.

Getting around
From Guatemala City, Antigua is roughly an hour away by private taxi ($45—arrange via your hotel).

Sumpango is about 17 kilometres from Antigua, but travel times vary during festival time.

Lake Atitlan is two hours away from Guatemala City by taxi ($100-plus), or 19 minutes by private helicopter (arrange via your hotel). Travel between villages around Lake Atitlan is done almost exclusively via water taxi. There is also an old foot trail that surrounds the lake.

Currency
The quetzal is the currency of Guatemala. ATMs can be found in the cities and larger villages, while major credit cards are accepted at most hotels and shops.

When to go
Antigua and Sumpango are hot and mostly dry in October and November. Lake Atitlan’s altitude provides a spring-like atmosphere year- round. Highlands weather is unpredictable, with frequent, but often brief, showers.

Visa
Canadian citizens may enter Guatemala visa-free for up to a six-month stay.

Stay healthy on your Guatemalan vacation with these tips.

Slideshow

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10 amazing Day of the Dead experiences

Celebrating the deceased

Graves are elaborately decorated during the Day of the Dead—some mementos represent a life lived, while others signify a family’s hopes and prayers for the afterlife.

By: Flash Parker Source: Flash Parker Credits: Canadian Living

10 amazing Day of the Dead experiences

Dia de los Muertos festivities

On Oct. 31, the cobbled streets of the colonial city of Antigua heave in festive anticipation.

By: Flash Parker Source: Flash Parker Credits: Canadian Living

10 amazing Day of the Dead experiences

The locals

The author experienced firsthand Guatemala's reputation as the friendliest nation in Central America.

By: Flash Parker Source: Flash Parker Credits: Canadian Living

10 amazing Day of the Dead experiences

Lake Atitlan

Casa Palopo’s dock offers one of the most stunning views of Lake Atitlan.

By: Flash Parker Source: Flash Parker Credits: Canadian Living

10 amazing Day of the Dead experiences

The beautiful Antigua

Antigua’s Santa Clara Convent was abandoned after an earthquake hit the city in 1773.

By: Flash Parker Source: Flash Parker Credits: Canadian Living

10 amazing Day of the Dead experiences

Colourful culture

Every Nov. 1, Sumpango, an otherwise sleepy village in the Sacatepéquez District, welcomes more than 10,000 revellers keen on communicating with the dead during the Feria de Barrilete Gigante, or the Festival of Giant Kites.

By: Flash Parker Source: Flash Parker Credits: Canadian Living

10 amazing Day of the Dead experiences

Sending a message

A 15-metre-wide kite carries wishes to the departed during festivities in Sumpango.

By: Flash Parker Source: Flash Parker Credits: Canadian Living

10 amazing Day of the Dead experiences

Decorated graves

Jubilation hangs on the air, an unexpected mood in a cemetery packed with mourners. Tombstones and burial mounds are decorated with fresh flowers and paper ornaments, while families picnic in the intervening spaces.

By: Flash Parker Source: Flash Parker Credits: Canadian Living

10 amazing Day of the Dead experiences

Painting portraits of the departed

A folk artist in the village of Santiago Atitlan paints a portrait of a customer’s deceased sister.

By: Flash Parker Source: Flash Parker Credits: Canadian Living

10 amazing Day of the Dead experiences

Energy-filled Sumpango

The sleepy village of Sumpango comes to life once a year, when more than 10,000 revellers come to pay their respects to the dead. Learn more about the Day of the Dead. Plus, find out what tourist attractions you need to see in Guatemala.

By: Flash Parker Source: Flash Parker Credits: Canadian Living


This story was originally titled "For Our Dearly Departed" in the November 2014 issue.

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Day of the Dead: Connecting with the dead in Guatemala

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