Day of the Dead


Wild creatures rise with the sun.

Except when they’re hungover.

By the time I am dragged into grudging consciousness the hammock is a stifling oven and all I want to do is turn on the fan. This model only comes with rain-proof tarp and regret-resonating headspace, so I get out and get on the road.

Focusing on the ride drags from my fugue. The scenery shifts from coastal jungle to gentle hills as I make my slow progress. Previous communiqués have indicated that a couple of the ladies from my Copper Canyon adventure will be at the festivities. The world is a small place when you have a motorcycle.

Still, my progress is halting; the entire province of Michoacán is celebrating today and every cemetery has a stream of people going in and out.

Of course I have to stop in each town, how else will I be able to compare? In small towns the people are, as usual, the most interested in striking up a conversation with the armored traveler wandering through their midst. I’m treated to candied yams and aguachile, a delicious shrimp, tomato and spicy chili dish cooked by the acid action of lime juice (read: eat raw shrimp and pray you’ve already got the necessary immunities). The decorations on the graves range from incredible flower arrangements to a simple scattering of petals; all together it is a riot of colour. I soak in the festival atmosphere – it is ostensibly a day to spend with your beloved deceased, but the party is anything but dead. Booze and food are in steady supply, and cheery families keep waving me over or hamming it up for the camera.

I lose all trepidation as I realize that the sacred and the profane are delineations for the chapel – here people relax in empty graves and tread over lumps marking the simpler burials, there is none of the somber pomp of traditional Christianity. Everyone is relaxed, today is a festival day, candy and balloons being sold to the kids and there are even groups of ambulatory musicians competing for pesos in traditional mariachi garb. One group comes over to where I’m taking photos, a fellow with a tiny guitar moves his hands in a blur while his companion to his right begins to pluck at an upright bass, three more strings join in and they sing in soulful union while the family pauses to give audience. They continue for enough songs to earn their pesos and move onto the next funereal party.

My hopalong journey lands me in Patzcuaro just before dark, and I’m lucky to find a place where I can hang my hammock – everything is booked solid, I get the impression that once again showing up on a radical motorcycle and claiming to have ridden all the way from Canada shakes a little compassion out of people who are tired of the usual unprepared tourist.

One of the first things I see in town is a couple with their faces painted as skulls, but it turns out they’re just tourists from the capital and that’s the last I see of that. I’m trying to see what the fuss was all about but I arrived too late – all the ceremonies took place during the day. I suppose the big event must have been exciting but I don’t regret the way I spent my day.

I meet up with Kristina and Martina who are partying with a bunch of tourists, but they vanish and I find myself with a bunch of gringos; tequila keeps appearing from somewhere among the rising volume.

The next day I wander through town, there are artisans from all over and one of them catches my attention calling me “carnal”. I find out it means “kin”, decide I like it and decide to start using it. The guy has a decorative skull on display that would look great on Lost, so I break a rule and buy a souvenir. The markets are full of incredible craftsmanship and kitschy creations awaiting a poorly considered impulse buy.

Having saturated my memory card in artisan goods I seek out some sustenance, it’s going to be veggie sandwich today. I pick out just enough produce for one sandwich including a couple stalks of cilantro from a cheery gentleman selling from the back of his truck, an he waves my money away when I try to pay him. He picks up a chili pepper and says it’s a gift to me – says it’s called No te olvides de Mexico, Don’t forget about Mexico. I’ve never tried these before but trust that it will remind me at least twice.

Fed and content, I decide to head over to the island of Janitzio following a wave of endorsements. Naturally it’s the exact opposite of what I am looking for, a slope covered in restaurants and souvenir shops. I can’t help striking up a conversation with a local kid about how it feels to have your idyllic island invaded by tourists and turned into a showpiece. He seems happy to have the money coming in; I leave him to it and decide I’ve seen all I want to of this island. On the way down I find the tiny cemetery, decorated in traditional style, but today there is nobody around to celebrate with the dead and I have them all to myself.

On the boatride back I strike up a conversation with a dude with a ridiculous shirt and a couple of cute friends, one of whom I had seen earlier wandering around barefoot.

They invite me to go with them to check out Camecuaro, and promise that it’s worth it. I don’t really have anything next on the list so I fire up the bike and follow them to meet up with some friends waiting at the famous Aztec rounded temples. I’m not sure how they got there but there is one person too many for the two car caravan, so next thing I know a Spanish girl named Jara is riding with me. I give her my spare poncho and wrap her in my scarf so all I can see is her eyes but she’s already wet underneath, she holds close for warmth and we ride slow sandwiched between cars with blinkers on as night falls. The trees branch over the road, headlights painting an endless tunnel of phantasmagorical shadows as I follow my new friends on into the night with no clue where we’re headed; time seems to start to distort and undulate just like the hilly road as Jara falls in and out of sleep, squeezing me tight each time I tap her to reassure me she’s comfortable and not about to fall off.

When we arrive there’s not much to see, they fumble around in the cars for tents and get everything set up. Guitars appear and thrum, voices sing, others start rolling joints; a bag of bread rolls appears from somewhere and then chocolates and chips. Jara turns out to have an incredible voice once she unwraps herself and shakes out the cold from her wet limbs, and as the empties pile up everyone starts to realize they can sing. It’s not overly cold, but it’s not too warm either, so when A offers me to share the tent with her and her friend I gladly take her up on it. We keep each other more than warm, but her friend’s presence keeps the tent from getting too steamy despite her protests that she’s asleep, which makes it all the funnier when she starts quoting things we thought we were whispering only to each other.

The next morning I wake to a scene from another world.

Ancient trees line shifting turquoise waters, their bare roots gnarled and wrestling for dominance all along the bank. Gaily painted boats skim the surface as visitors paddle along, elegant ducks wander boldly among people, all under a the grey sky whose softly diffused light gives everything a dreamlike quality.

I wander around discovering the details of this strange place, my new bohemian friends playing in the trees and wandering half-clothed through the flooded parks and along winding walkways. It’s my kind of day.

After a swim in the lake a German couple studying in Guadalajara tell me to come stay with them a while. Turns out they live in a gorgeous hacienda style house with a bunch of other people, most of whom I’ve already met here. They’re all enthusiastic, artists, film students, dreamers, musicians, and I agree without a second thought.

The breeze halts its swirling chaos and focuses, this leaf in the wind finds itself once again seeing the patterns in the currents, a future I can barely hear the shape of, but definitely there, waiting for me.


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