When we decided we would travel around Mexico, I was elated to know we would be in the country for one of their greatest holidays, Día de los Meurtos (Day of the Dead), which falls around the same time as our Canadian Halloween, which just so happens to be my favourite holiday of all! So while I was devastated to be missing Halloween, being in Mexico for Día de los Muertos more than made up for that loss! I wanted to make sure we were in a big city centre for the holiday, so after Tulum, we headed up to Mérida, a city my mom had told us about when she last came down to Mexico.
Judy and Kevin, our two new besties that we met at Nomadas Hostel, were regulars to Mexico and had been coming to Mérida for the last four or five years for Día de los Muertos (or Festival de las Ánimas – Festival of the souls, as it’s known in the Yucatán). So we really struck gold in meeting them as they knew what was happening for the week of festivities. Lucky for us and my excellent planning (!) that we came to Merida early, because the festivities actually happen early here – the Friday before the actual dates of the festival is when the town puts on it’s massive parade (in part for the tourists) – but it’s akin to Halloween festivities back home: when it falls on say, a Tuesday, we usually host our celebrations on the closest Friday or Saturday. Friday was the big parade and Judy and Kevin kindly agreed to let us tag along with them. We took a taxi a few kilometres down towards the cemetery, but because we had signed up to do the hostels cooking class with Daniel that evening, we were a bit late and missed the main part of the parade, just catching the end of it. However, we just so happened to end up perfectly positioned to catch the reenactment of the traditional Mayan ball game. Now, I admit, I thought this ‘ball game’ was a just a baseball game, which I thought was slightly odd to be calling it ‘traditional’… But I soon came to realize what ‘ball game’ it truly was.
When I was 17, I visited Mexico with my family and we visited Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan ruins site. I remember being utterly fascinated by the history of these ruins, of this empire, this ancient civilization. I remember in particular the part of the tour that stuck with me most after all those years was the arena where the Mayan’s played their ‘ball game’. It wasn’t the arena itself, but the way the game was played and the brutal outcomes for the losing team – beheading. So to get front row seats to see this ancient game brought to life, 14 years later after first being so enthrralled by it, was thrilling!
There was a lot of pomp around the game, the beginning being ceremonial. A white robed man held a bowl of burning copal and it smoked wildly, churning into the dark night. The smell filled the air entirely, overpowering all other smells – and there were many on this festival night. The players were in full uniform – their bodies fully painted, each of them an eerie skeletal tower of bones, all black and white. Some players heads were adorned with intricate head dresses of feathers and bones, others were bare, and I wondered if this indicated their position in the game, identifying them as key players. A man dressed in elaborate finery; a headdress much more grandiose than all the rest, full body paint, and a long white cape came forward. He took the burning bowl of copal and wafted the smoke into each player as they presented themselves to him.
A ritual was performed around an ornate bowl that had flames of fire dancing from it’s bowels. The drums began to pound, and a flute like instrument punctuated the heavy beats with its high pitched call, like the mimic of a bird. Huge conch shells and maracas were set around the bowl and the players began a wild dance, chanting and jumping over them, each picking up a maraca during the dance and shaking it along with the beat of the drums. They jumped over the fire and around each other in a harmonic yet wild dance.
When the ritual, an opening ceremony of sorts, was over, the game was set to begin. The ornately dressed man with the large headdress was the judge of the game, and when everyone assumed their positions, it began. Each team took their respective sides and the large hoop was placed in the middle. A ball about half the size of a basketball and with less bounce was given to one team and they had to toss it to the other team to get things going. The rules were that other than the initial hand toss and those from when the ball went out of bounds or fell dead, no hand or foot contact was allowed- in fact the only way they were allowed to touch the ball to move it was with their hips! Players had leather wrapped around certain knee and hip areas to allow them to crouch low to the ground and slide their hips along said ground (in this case, cement, ouch!) in order to hit the ball. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult or exhausting playing like this would be!
We got right into the game with the rest of the crowd of thousands pushing in around us, wondering how we got so lucky to get front row viewing. Sometimes a player would smash the ball with his hip and it would fly at the hoop, hit the edge and bounce off – the whole crowd would scream with anticipation, sure that it was going in, and then groan communally as it bounced back to the ground and the play continued on. It was tense and riveting. I felt transported back 1000 years, to the huge arena, the dirt ground, clouds of dust billowing up from the players stamping feet, the crowd roaring, and the heavy pressure of winning; for a loss then wasn’t just shameful, it could mean death. We watched for about a half hour before a goal was finally scored. While this reenactment wasn’t exactly how it was played, we realize they had to make adjustments to give a good show in a reasonable amount of time, it was so fascinating to see. The music, the dress, the crowd, the players; it was wondrous!
After this we broke into the throng of people and walked 15 blocks or so through Mérida to head back towards our end of town. Every single block was filled with thousands of people, many painted up with skeleton faces. Food vendors were every few metres, ensuring no one went hungry. Of course, we stopped for my new favourite snack, a marquesita- which is what you ask? It’s a sort of thinned out ice cream cone batter, poured over a flat circular sheet of scalding iron, sandwiched between another, then slathered with nutella and freshly shredded edam cheese. As weird as this sounds, it’s one of the best treats I’ve ever encountered and I can’t recommend it enough!
Walking through the streets with thousands of people was overwhelming – there was just so much to look at! So many amazing costumes and amazing painted faces, so much food to smell and guess at what it was, so much music, and of course, endless shrines – the true meaning for this holiday- to remember, and welcome back into their homes, loved ones who’ve passed. People in Merida now put their shrines outside their homes on this special day – tables covered in cloth, photos of their loved ones, pan de muertos (sugar bread), oranges and mandarines, carnations – and whatever else their relatives may have loved, cigars and mescal for some, dice and tacos for others. My senses were in over drive, my mind working a mile a minute to process all it was taking in. It was overwhelming in a most wonderful kind of way!
We eventually made our way back to the hostel, hours later, and while we missed the parade we were so thrilled about the game we were able to witness that we didn’t even mind. And besides, the next day we went out for dinner, and on our way, ran into another parade we didn’t even know about! Men and women in horse drawn carriages in full dress and painted faces careened passed us waving and smiling widely, a man pulling a bull on wheels with ‘promesa” (promise) written on it’s side ran past us at full tilt, a chorus of men in all white, with painted faces, followed by women all in traditional floral and white dresses with head wraps and painted faces came after, clapping along to the band that came behind them. Again, we just saw the tail end of the parade but it was beautiful!
The thing I love so much about Día de los Muertos is that while it’s a festival to remember passed loved ones, it is in no way about sadness and mourning, but instead of celebrating and remembering their loved ones, and welcoming them back into their homes. People are happy, always with smiles on their faces, stories to tell of their families and are out and about celebrating night after night. I admire the way Mexican people approach death – it’s so drastically different from how we handle it in Canada. We are so unaccustomed to death, so ill equipped to deal with it, that we fear it, and we mourn it so heavily, forgetting to celebrate out loved ones after they are gone. Since I can remember, I have always said that when I pass, I don’t want some sappy, god awful funeral. None of that mess. I want a PARTY! I want everyone to drink and eat wonderful food and listen to happy music and sit around celebrating and remembering instead of those awful sombre funerals. Now, that isn’t to say people can’t mourn – obviously mourning is an important part of dealing with loss. But perhaps we’ve been going about it wrong, and perhaps we should be taking a page from Mexico. Maybe we need to fear death less, embrace it more. it is an inevitable part of life after all. Maybe we need to celebrate our ancestors more instead of only grieving for them.
I’m just so happy I was able to experience this festival here in Mexico, to not only see the celebrations and festivities, but to gain more perspective on death. Gracias Mexico!