Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
Having spent the past 3 years in Toronto; October 31st in my calendar has been one of the biggest party nights of the year. This to the best of my knowledge is very much a North American thing. Sadly we missed it this year and were a little disappointed. We did realise though that this same day in Central America is known as the “Day of the Dead”. I’m not entirely sure of all the traditions, but I know it varies at least from Mexico to Guatemala. In Mexico, we thought long and hard to stay in Oaxaca as it has a strong tradition of colourful parades and countless numbers of people celebrating.
The day of the dead is actually used by people to honor the dead people they know in cemeteries. As far as I know it is most commonly recognised on November 1. School and work seem to take a back seat to this tradition. It is a day of celebration and of remembering and honoring those in the past. This is commonly for family members, but I think it also stretches for friends and so on. In Sumpango I think the tourists watching and looking in could possibly outnumber the legitimate people in the cemetery. Anyway, plots in the cemetery are cleared of dirt and debris and then decorated.
This cemetery had two common types of plot. The first was the size of a small room which I assume is a large family plot above ground and almost always colorfully painted and usually with plaques on the side with names and messages like a tombstone might have. These plots usually had pre-arranged wreaths wrapped in plastic attached to the side similar to what you might put on your door for Christmas. Overall these didn’t seem to have a lot of decoration on them as we walked through. Perhaps it was still too early or the people consider the bright paint as a completed work.
The second type of plot was I assume for the poorer people where it was a simple in ground dirt arrangement. Personally these were the more eye catching as people had more artistic ability to create something unique. As you can see from the photos, there bright flowers contrast brilliantly with the pine needles. The other common decoration I’m not sure what it was exactly, but I suspect it could have even been corn flour considering how common corn is in the area. Anyway, the white colour is almost applied like paint or plaster and allowed to dry before adding further decoration most commonly of bright flowers.
So what I just described is typical of almost all Guatemalan cemeteries. Sadly I didn’t get a chance to look around at other local cemeteries as I came down with the flu on the morning of November 1. I did thankfully get to go to the main event that we did manage to learn about which is the “Festival de Sumpango, Barilletas Gigantes”. This translates loosely into, The Festival of Giant Kites in Sumpango. This town is around a 2hr drive from Panajachel towards Antigua and Guatemala City. In fact, it is much closer to both of these places off the major east/west highway. Tourists are a very common sight amongst the many thousands of people in attendance.
The festival itself has apparently been around since at least the 1940’s. For months leading up to the event, small groups of people join together to build giant kites. The kites frames are made of bamboo with intricate designs of tissue paper then attached. Quite often there appeared to be moral messages such as “no violence” attached. On November 1, these kites are taken to a large soccer field on a hill outside of town, overlooking the main cemetery. There is music, dancing, food and plenty of people selling anything you could imagine. The kites are mounted on stands for all to admire and get their photos. When we arrived in the mid-morning, there were teams of people still in varying levels of preparation. Some simply had the bamboo frame, many others were complete, mounted and waiting their turn.
There is a competition itself that certainly keeps your attention. The smallest kites launch first and the idea is to stay in the air the longest. The attention keeping bit is these are launched in the middle of the crowd and can and will drop from the sky in a heartbeat. Take a look at my attached video ( http://youtu.be/X50pM0xkgHY )for some examples. The winner is the one that stays in the air the longest. Sadly we didn’t stay until later, but I assume the biggest of the big kites have no chance of ever taking to the air. These monsters would have to be bigger than maybe 30 metres in diameter and who knows how much they could weigh.
The apparent story of how the festival exists is that spirits came out on November 1st to annoy Sumpango’s residents. Frustrated with this they asked a witch doctor what they should to do to scare away these spirits. The witch doctor suggested they take big pieces of paper, let them fly in the wind and make lots of noise to scare them away. Kites became the most popular way to do this and a tradition was born.
I hope you enjoyed the photos. I think that’s about all for this one. Until next time.
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