Partying with, or is that like, the dead

November 17, 2008

I realise I have been a bit useless at posting recently. It´s quite hard to have access to internet (cheaply, anyway) while travelling and I keep on getting caught up in silly things like sight-seeing. But speaking of silly things, how does competing in a horse race while blind drunk and whipping with a now-alive-now-dead chicken sound? Because that cultural phenonemon comprises the Todos Santos Day of the Dead tradition that I witnessed last weekend.

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After my last week of studying Spanish at the Escuela de la Montana I left immediately to travel with another student to Todos Santos, a tiny, isolated village in the Western highlands famous for the above traditions. We knew that it would all be booked up months in advance for the festival, but, we thought, we could always get a bus back to the nearest big town of Huehuetenango if we couldn´t find anywhere to stay. Little did we know that we would be stranded once we got there, with no buses running the whole weekend.

Stephanie and I turned up on the big tourist shuttle at 11am with a small backpack each and feeling slightly nervous about not having anywhere to stay, but feeling comfortable as a twosome and kind of exhilarated at being such brave travellers, adventureresses into the unknown, etc, etc. At least that´s how I felt. It´s a self-congratulatory colonial impression I get sometimes. After a breakfast of pollo fritos with more fried papas (my vegetarianism being on hold for curiosity and ease´s sake – perhaps something that merits a separate post), we bumped into a friend of a friend who thought he could sort us something out accommodation wise. Deciding to risk it, we ventured forth towards the drunken horse races.

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And boy were they drunken. The point of this Maya tradition is basically to see who can stay the longest on their horse while doing a shot of rum at every turn of the lap. It´s something that Paul Froes might be able to accomplish better than most, although I´m not sure about the riding aspect. Having heard about the famous chicken-whipping, we were kind of disappointed to not see any chickens. I thought maybe some international animal activists had put a stop to the ritual abuse of fowl in the name of a good time, and the dead. But, no. Later in the afternoon there was a loud squawking as a huge cream hen was pulled along by her feet by a rider. Several hilarious laps later, the squawking had stopped as the rider´s hands had moved to her throat and either suffocated her to death or broken her neck. As she was swung in circles by her neck in a way that no animal could survive she seemed to me to be a symbol of extreme deadness. Live chicken. Dead chicken. It felt like a very clear lesson in life. The same death met a Bantam. I doubt they appreciated the extraordinary manner of their death. Although sad, I found this chicken display really funny. But my friends, when I told them later, were not impressed. I guess animal cruelty just isn´t that funny to some people.

We later followed friends of the friend of a friend who had said they could find us somewhere to sleep to the attic of a local Senor who must occassionally rent out this room in his barn. We slept huddled up together with 3 sheets, 4 blankets, a sleeping bag and all out clothes and were still a little chilly in the Highland mist. I was greatly amused by the path I memorised to reach our huge room after the party. Turn right at the golden door onto the mud path, go past the donkey, past the drunkily abandoned shoes, round the back of the hut and under the washing to the house. The donkey was my favourite bit, and I felt compelled to greet her every time we passed.

In the evening, after all the shuttle buses had departed and we were two of the only extranjeras (foreigners) left, we ate another chickeny meal in a comedor, a very basic type of restaurant that your average Guatemalan actually eats at, rather than the fancy Gringo places, and wandered around the village. I have never seen so many blind drunk people in my life. It was enough to rival Fresher´s week at Leeds University or Frosh at McGill. Unconscious men were lying in pools of their own blood, many were staggering around unable to speak, some were fighting, some were being aggressively sleazy (not great for the only blonde foreigner) and even some women were in a similar state, although they have much less liberty to drink and party than the men do. For a people who apparently drink very little during the rest of the year, the aftermath of this party was a little like a massacre-by-rum. I think at least one person died this year, although I didn´t hear the final report. 5 died last year.

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That night we joined in the local party in the town hall, kind of like a Guatemalan barn dance. I found it really hard to reconcile myself to the fact that women were expected to dance with any man who asked them, and only to only dance when asked by a male partner. I basically ignored this tradition, as it´s sexist, not my culture and pisses me off. But the incredulity of the men who I declined to dance with astounded me. Unable to believe they had been refused they hung around me, and kept asking again and again. Some became aggressive and kept casually tapping me, which of course made me really angry and, when I was on the verge of getting in a physical fight, Steph suggested we transfer to the Gringo group where we were seen to belong to ´our´ men and were left alone more. I have observed this gender dynamic in a salsa club before and it really pisses me off. Women seem to have no choice in who they dance with, and are expected to partner up with any guy who asks them. The only way out of this predicament is to dance with a guy you trust and pretend you´re married to him. I have taken this route before as it allows me a lot of peace, while it does nothing to challenge the rules. I know there are many handsome lovely Guatemalan men out there, but I would be unlikely to dance with a guy in a Canadian or British club, being queer and all, and, duh, the sexual dynamic does nothing for me.

The best part of the dance for me was the band. Think eighties boy band with matching white jumpsuits, coordinated dancing, and a signature hand-in-crotch-thrust-leg-wiggle that, despite the description, does not look anything like Elvis. The leg wiggle can only be described as such, and I am baffled by how much these highland boys reminded me of jellyfish.

Early the next morning we briefly visited the next part of the festival which celebrated death in a way that contains very little grief, and much joy. We walked to the graveyard at 8 in the morning which was decorated with plastic flowers, fresh ones being impossible to grow in and transport to this remote area, and in which a marimba band and a priest were performing simultaneously (the marimba is a traditional instrument that, to my unknowledgable eye, looks like a great big xylophone and is played by three men). Like the Todos Santos people´s traditional dress of stripey white and red trousers, blue checkshirt and straw hat which reminds me of nothing so much as an ice-cream seller at the British seaside, which the teenagers wear over heavy metal t-shirts, the celebration in general melds together both Pagan and Christian a traditions. It is probably this mixture that has made them so famous. Both Stephanie and I were a little uncomfortable at witnessing a celebration which seems so intimate, because it concerns the dead, but I think we didn´t intrude too much. I am sure that some of the locals resented us, however, and this weird unequal exchange of experience often makes me uncomfortable when I am not connected to the event. At other times I am more involved, and participate as a guest, rather than stare as a foreigner.

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Having found out, that, as the day before, there were no buses on this holiday, Stephanie and I walked to the edge of the town and sat on the road to await a pick-up, a lift, a minivan, our fate. Luckily a minivan pulled up after about 20 minutes and we didn´t need to contemplate getting into a car with an unknown stranger. This freezing, colourful, manic weekend was my first experience as a bona fide traveller in Guatemala and it set a really high standard. I think it´s something that I will remember for its uniqueness for a long time. I hope other experiences live up to it.

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2 Responses to “Partying with, or is that like, the dead”

  1. Jilly Batchelor said

    Dear Laura,

    Anne has just sent me this website… goodness me what an adventure you are having. Sitting here in suburban Crockenhill with the dog at my feet and a grey evening outside you have just transported me with all your news. How exciting it sounds, you really are a shining star!

    Our adventures are a little nearer to home. We have fallen in love with Stuart’s baby son, James. We have had two trips to New Zealand this year and now George is happily married to his lovely New Zealand wife Michelle and has three step children. Sally and Mary are fine. Howard is too, as lovely as ever.

    But mostly Laura a very happy birthday to you and Happy Christmas. I think of you with love, Jilly x

  2. Jilly Batchelor said

    Happy Christmas Laura XXXX Jilly

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